According to New York Magazine, citing data from NASA and Bloomberg, it’s been the hottest month in recorded history for a year now. In these temperatures, we’ve got big frozen things melting, low-lying places flooding, hurricanes swooping out of season, trash pools whirling in ever-widening gyres, and species quietly going extinct. The long-term impact of the heating up of the earth’s surface is not entirely clear, but what is clear is that something needs to change.
In all of this discomfiting warmth, I am primarily concerned about people, and I am of a mind to start pointing fingers. Not at big industry, emerging nations, or even the U.S. government. I want to point at people who read the Christian Bible superficially, thus engendering misunderstandings that become powerful and damaging political ideologies. More specifically, I want to point fingers at Christian environmentalists who, with the best of intentions, take on the mantle of environmental “stewardship,” which they derive from the Bible, but actually use that mantle to the detriment both of the earth and to accurate readings of the Bible itself.
I’m talking about the Biblical treatment of stewardship. Many Christians invoke the idea of stewardship as a justification for their environmental stances. In one interpretation of Christian stewardship, God gave the earth unto mankind, so that mankind could act as steward of that gift, using the earth’s resources to the greatest possible advantage. Now, of course, many Christian Environmentalists understand stewardship not as carte blanche to do what they will with the earth, but as an obligation to manage God’s gift responsibly. But all too often, the idea of stewardship is impressed into the service of demands to drill for oil in the arctic or dump massive amounts of waste into the seas because, well, there those places are, kind of big and empty and underused.
What I find fascinating about the discourse on stewardship is that it misses the point of the steward parable – often by wrongly conflating it with the Parable of the Talents. The actual stewardship parable, often called the Parable of the Unjust Steward, tells a story of a steward who is entrusted to manage his lord’s wealth responsibly. But the steward fails in his assigned task, wasting all of the lord’s goods, so that the lord demands an account of his expenditures and fires him from his job. Bad news: it looks like there are pretty dire consequences for mismanaging the lord’s goods. But things get more interesting. In response to getting busted, the unjust steward goes to people who were in debt to the lord, and he reduces their debts by half. Now things get really weird: the lord praises him for redistributing the lord’s wealth in this way, for being “unjust,” and for taking wealth from the lord himself.
Needless to say, this parable has historically been a source of consternation for Biblical commentators. But in the 1380s, a cleric named Thomas Wimbledon had a great insight into it. He delivered a public sermon on the Unjust Steward to a group of Londoners, which emphasized how the steward’s original squandering of the lord’s wealth would have consequences for the weakest, poorest, and most desperate in society, and how that neglect to take care of those in need was his primary crime. Thus, the steward’s redistribution of wealth at the end makes sense: it is direct atonement for the initial act of wasting and squandering.
Now, the circumstances of the 1380s were different; Wimbledon wasn’t protesting environmental squandering by nation-states and corporations. But his fundamental insight is deeply relevant to our current socio-political and environmental situation. The Parable of the Unjust Steward only makes sense if you understand it as a claim for the importance of economic justice, the redistribution of wealth, and the protection of the poor. That is what the Bible endorses as the mandate of a steward. So, if the industrialized nations — in fact, I’ll just say the U.S. – wants to orient its environmental policy around the idea of stewardship, it needs to do so with the awareness that stewardship is ultimately about the protection of other people. Poorer people. People down the ladder of socio-economic stability and security.
In our current geopolitical moment, then, anyone who wants to lay claim to stewardship of the “earth” should actually make an effort to foster economic and environmental justice that will include, for instance, the Global South — the area of the surface of the earth that suffers the most acutely from the ongoing effects of colonialism, structural inequality, and environmental decay. If you want to be a good steward, a good Christian using the earth’s resources well and responsibly, you have to do so with an eye not simply toward the material preservation of what you have been given — like coal, oil, gas, or water — but also toward the people who have less than you have and who are structurally positioned to have less access to what you have.
So, as the earth continues in its perhaps doomed course of warming up, I would like to make a plea that people who rely on the Bible to justify their political stances on the environment read a little more carefully, so as to recognize that, to Jesus, the goods of the earth that we are most meant to preserve are the welfares of its human denizens.
Eleanor Johnson is a professor at Columbia University.