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Sunday, October 7, 2012


Psalm 8.

            One of the most catastrophically misunderstood words in the Bible is “dominion.”  It is used here in this Psalm, and in Genesis 1, to describe the human relationship to God’s creation.
            Every once in a while I come in contact with someone who holds to the belief that dominion means that God gave humanity everything in the creation to use as we see fit.  The oil and gas and minerals were placed in the ground for us to find, exploit, and benefit from.  Animals are here for us to eat and otherwise utilize.  Forests are to be cut down and used for fuel and building.  Soil is for farming.  If a mountain gets in our way we are within our God-given rights to remove it.  And so on.  For these folks, dominion means domination according to our own sinful desires.  And, in spite of the wall-to-wall witness of Scripture, they actually believe this license to waste and consume creation was given to humans by God.
            And they enlist this Psalm as part of their justification.  They point to a verse like: “You have given [humans] dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,” and they say, “See?  It is ours to do with as we please.  God gave it to us.”
            Hence this Psalm has been used to justify all kinds of environmental destruction in the service of what passes for progress among people.  The argument is that: Since God gave us dominion over animals it is perfectly okay to torture them in the service of medicine or business, and to kill them for food on an industrial scale.  God gave us oil and coal to burn and it is our sacred duty to burn all of it regardless of the atmospheric consequences.  God gave us dominion, right?   So whatever we do to the earth is fine with God.  Strip mines, mountaintop removal mines, deep sea oil drilling, hydraulic fracturing, clear-cutting tropical rainforest, toxic waste dumps, and all the consequences of these activities are apparently blessed by God.
            So… according to this reasoning, God gives us this beautiful and abundant planet, so full of wonder and glory, and God stocked it to sustain all of life, including humans, in comfort and satisfaction, and we turn the whole place into a poisoned and degraded Love Canal for the enrichment of a very few, and God is supposedly okay with that?  Seriously?  God gave us the vineyard… to destroy?  To rape and pillage to make a small minority of humans obscenely wealthy and comfortable, while the vast majority expires in squalor?  To condemn countless species to eternal extinction?  That was God’s plan?  “Drill here, drill now”?  That’s what “dominion” means?
            That certainly is what dominion means, if we let dominion be defined by the people with enough wealth and power to force their definitions on us.  What can dominion mean but absolute power to dispose of as we please?  What can dominion mean except comprehensive domination of one class, in one species, over everything that God has made?
            Is that what this Psalm says?  It starts out with praise of the awesome majesty of the Lord’s name “in all the earth.”  God’s name, God’s signature, is revealed in all creation.  God’s glory is set “above the heavens” it pervades and shines and showers down upon everything that God has made.
            Verse 2 has always been a puzzle to translators.  It is hard to make sense of it.  “Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.”  The Psalmist uses the image of very young children to talk about the proper attitude of praise.  We praise God innocently, enthusiastically, with no preconceptions; we praise the God next to whom we are powerless and weak, dependent and fearful, like little children. 
            In today’s gospel reading Jesus also lifts up and commends the attitude of children.  “Let the little children come to me;” he says, “do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.  Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  God is looking for childlike characteristics from us. 
            The Psalmist contrasts this praise of “babes and infants” to the noise of “the enemy and the avenger.”  In fact, it even says that the simple, heartfelt praise of young children forms a protective wall against the abuses of the strong. 
            The “enemy and the avenger” refer to human strength, people who are arrogant in their self-assertion.  Babes and infants represent human weakness and humility; but they are the ones who rightly praise God’s name.  The Psalmist is giving us the key by which we may understand the remainder of the Psalm.  When the text goes on to talk about human dominion, it is something God-given that has to be responded to with childlike wonder, respect, and joy.  It is a gift, not a right. 
            The enemies are the people who grab this dominion as if it were an entitlement.  They approach creation with a selfish, retributive violence that is the opposite of the song of children.  Our dominion is something God-given and revealed in the divine Name itself.  It is not human arrogance but childlike recognition and praise of God’s name that gives humans this authority.
            We receive the Kingdom of God, says Jesus, like children.  Not knowing everything, not boasting in our own power and independence, but secure in our dependence upon a God who carries us.  This is the example Jesus himself gives us.  Jesus is the one who shows us what true dominion is in God’s sight.  And Jesus exercised a dominion that was anything but a violent, selfish, destructive, poisoning, wasteful, domination of others.  On the contrary, Jesus walked amid his Father’s creation with an attitude of wonder, respect, humility, communion, and joy.

            In verses 3 and 4, the Psalmist famously wonders about the insignificance of human beings in such a vast and glorious universe.  What are we compared with the stars and the moon?  What are we next to billions of galaxies scattered across impossible eons of space?  To God we are little more than bugs, crawling on a small ball of rock, orbiting an ordinary star, in some backwater of the Milky Way.  Why would we even imagine that God pays any attention to us at all?
            And yet God, the Creator of the whole universe, remembers us and cares for us, like a loving parent.  It is humility and submission that God looks for from us.  All we have and are is a gracious gift, far beyond our deserving.  It is a gift and a responsibility, given in trust that we respect the intentions and will of the giver.
            Then the Psalm gives us that wonderful rhetorical question: “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” to which the answer is “Nothing!”  In ourselves we are nothing compared with God.  In Job 38 God thunders in the same vein, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”     
            This is something it is impossible for us to recognize if we are full of ourselves.  If we are approaching life adversarially and vengefully, with an attitude of selfish domination, waste, and consumption, we cannot praise God with a childlike voice.  We cannot responsibly exercise the gift of dominion if it is all about us.  We have first to realize that it is all about God.
            And who are we that God should take on human flesh and dwell among us as one of us?  Who are we that God should continually stoop to rescue us from the consequences of our disobedience, our hapless, violent, tragic buffoonery, our enthrallment with death, our addiction to greed?  Is this attention something we earned?  Is it because of our smartness and achievements and success?  No.  It is just because God chose, for reasons I will never understand, to love us unconditionally.
            Maybe God loves us unconditionally because God loves this whole creation unconditionally, and we are a part of that grand project.  God even puts us in charge of the beloved creation… and we know how that turned out.  Yet God still loves us anyway.
            Like with so many other things, Jesus turns dominion upside-down.  Dominion for Jesus is not about extraction, violence, control, and hoarding power all for yourself.  It is certainly not about destruction, death, waste, pollution, and profit.  These are the ways the principalities and powers of our world define dominion.
            On the contrary, true dominion, the kind of dominion Jesus exercised as a revelation of the dominion of God, is dominion that is given away, shared, and bestowed on another.  This is the dominion of the Kingdom of God.  God gives us dominion, but we only truly have it when we give it away.  God’s power is shown in the empowerment of others, in this case, us.  Our power, Jesus demonstrates, is also only truly possessed when we also in turn empower others.  In the Kingdom of God, we only have what we give away.  The fact that we are able to give something away is the only proof that we ever truly had it to begin with.
            In his own life Jesus is forever giving away the power he has received from the Father: Power to heal, to liberate, to make whole, to give hope, even to bring someone back to life who had died.  In giving away his power he empowered those other people who gained their sight, could now walk, were freed from demons, and who had died. 
            Most of all he gives us his own life by offering it up in love on the cross.  In so doing he empowers us to be his people, even to be his body, his living presence, on the earth.
            Jesus is our example in all things.  It is he, not our human standards and expectations and desires, that defines everything for us.  So when Scripture talks about something like dominion it means dominion as Jesus demonstrates it, not dominion according to human principalities and powers.
            So when the Psalm goes on to list those various categories of animals and birds and fish, it is said with wonder and amazement, not the gloating of control.  All this vibrant, teeming, miraculous life, all these manifestations of God’s creative power and imagination, we humans have been given dominion over.  And if we follow Jesus, we know that this dominion is not about exercising a heartless tyranny over them.  But showing dominion with them the same way God shows dominion with us.
            For just as God’s dominion with us is expressed in sharing God’s power, caring for us, blessing us, and giving us freedom to be who we were created to be, so also our dominion with the creatures of this earth – from the land, water, and air, to birds, fish, and animals – is to demonstrate the same care, stewardship, blessing, and gentleness God shows to us.
            We are not to approach this world or anything in it as if it belonged to us and were ours to dispose of as we please.  Nothing is an “object.”  Everything is alive with the grandeur of the Creator, everything points to God and was made to glorify God, from a common pebble, to a human brain.   
            This is the way Jesus, who is himself God for heaven’s sake, acted.  It all really did belong to him!  He is the Word of God by whom all things were made!  If anyone had the right to dominion he did.  And the dominion he embodies is expressed in love. 
            God’s dominion is the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom of God belongs to the pure in heart, the poor in spirit, the peacemakers, those who mourn, the gentle… and children: “it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.  Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”     

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