June 4, 2018

Obedience is Green

Obedience to God's laws and norms is a matter of real-world significance. This is true for agriculture and every other type of cultural pursuit.

There are few things that the modern state is not willing to regulate out of existence in our time, but recently I came across an example that really caught my attention. In 2016 in the great state of California (where else?), a law was passed to regulate cow flatulence.[1] Globally, taxes are increasingly being proposed on milk and meat to reduce cattle populations. Apparently cows with bad gas are contributing to greenhouse gas emissions (methane and carbon) which are to blame for pretty much everything these days, from poverty, to international terrorism to hurricanes. As important players in the social justice movement – for liberation is required for the planet from a rapacious humanity – one hears the claims of climate change fanatics so often that whenever one reads of a significant phenomenon effecting the earth’s ecosystem most assume it is another piece of evidence for catastrophic man-made global warming.

This happened recently when I was watching a beautiful wildlife documentary with my children and learned a very interesting and troubling fact: 45,000 square miles of arable land on the planet are being lost to desertification each year. Which is to say, at present, every year, 45,000 square miles of land on earth becomes desert. By the end of the century, that’s a lot of desert and potentially means a lot of displaced people, especially in Africa, central Asia and Australia. As I expected, the commentator on this program implied that climate change was responsible for desertification. So on this occasion I took some time to look into it, and found that the received wisdom on the subject is far from the settled truth. Carbon dioxide and methane emissions are not, in themselves, the cause of desertification. On the contrary, increased levels of greenhouse gases have helped boost green foliage significantly in the world’s arid regions for decades, lengthening growing seasons in northern areas so that global green coverage is greater today than it was in the 1970s. So if not greenhouse gases, what is creating deserts? It is soil degradation that creates deserts.

If this sounds like a trivial point not suited for non-scientists, think of it in these terms: at a more basic level, it is a failure to observe God’s law and norms for land, crops and herds that turns once-good fertile land into desert, and it is this disobedience which in the end can starve and displace peoples. Environmental science shows that in temperate and sub-tropical climates which have a rainy season and a dry season, the vegetation holds moisture in the soil between the seasonal rains. However, if the soil degrades to a point where vegetation is no longer growing, then the moisture quickly evaporates and the land becomes dry and arid. The dilemma has been described this way:

In seasonal rainfall environments we find a mass of vegetation grows each year during the growing season…. Of the annual growth of vegetation, a very high percentage dies at season's end and has to decay to cycle the nutrients, retain the carbon and clear the way for the following season's growth. These are the environments in which we find the large herding herbivores and the pack-hunting predators and this was not by chance. In these environments it is essential that a high proportion of the annual vegetation, once dead, be consumed by herbivores and converted to dung and urine partly broken down for micro-organisms to complete the task…. The role of the predator was an essential one in this complex whole. The fear of predation kept many herbivore species concentrated and as no animals like to feed on their own concentrated dung and urine, they kept moving. Movement kept plants from being nibbled to death in overgrazing and overbrowsing and thus helped maintain both vegetative mass and diversity of the entire community. The trampling of concentrated animals also assisted decay and the maintenance of covered and broken soil surfaces for better moisture penetration, aeration and life.[2]

This describes a remarkable balance within creation. If wild herds are reduced, domestic mobile herds of grazing animals need to replace them to aerate soil and fertilize land. In other words, bio-integrated farmsteads are needed which do not exhaust the land with crop monocultures and which observe a rest for the land and cattle to allow time for soil to recover and herds to graze and fertilize the land – this is what God’s law-word requires (Leviticus 25). God the Creator’s agricultural laws are not arbitrary; they specifically allow for a rejuvenation of the land so that proactive, healthy ecosystems can flourish indefinitely. Without obedience to God’s law for the land, man overhunts, robs the soil of its fertility by over-grazing and over-farming, and undermines his own well-being. The land God was promising to the Hebrews in the older testament was flowing with milk and honey because bees, plants and animals were productive in a healthy, balanced system. So, for agriculture to be healthy and not destructive we need to observe God’s law and norms. Where we fail to do so, we turn the world into a desert and destroy ourselves.

We cannot agree with those eco-warriors who claim that productive man is the problem, that he is a virus on the earth, and demand fewer people and livestock and less productivity. It is not man himself who is the problem from the scriptural standpoint. The garden sanctuary of the earth (Gen. 1-2) and the Sabbath were made for man, the pinnacle of creation, wherein he was to display God’s care, rule and glory (Mark 2:27). Without man, all the earth would be a boundless wilderness and comparatively non-productive, the proper balance within creation being lost without man to tend and keep it.

It is certainly true that there are all kinds of ecological problems in the earth that the sin (i.e. lawlessness) of man is responsible for. There are serious pollution issues, over-fishing, over-hunting and over-farming and many other problems that require responsible care and conservation. Moreover, as Christians we are to be agents of the restorative and renewing life of the gospel in every area of life, and this includes caring for our environment and being good stewards of the vast resources of the world Christ has created. In fact this commission was given to human beings from the beginning (Gen. 1:26-28) and this command must be taken seriously – it has never been rescinded. Thus the answer is not getting rid of man, but getting rid of lawlessness – the restoration of man’s calling to obedience. The remarkable thing is that desertification in nature is reversible by obedience to God.

What is true in the realm of agriculture finds its parallel in all areas of human culture. Sin and disobedience to God’s law and norms create a cultural wasteland where people end up destroying themselves (Prov. 8:36). We live in a time in the West of cultural desertification. To extend a potent metaphor, if the cultural soil of our time is not aerated, fertilized and seeded by God’s people by means of a full-orbed gospel, Christ’s church walking up and down upon it, our culture will no longer be able to retain the moisture of truth and will break down.

It is interesting that Christ’s new humanity are often likened to a flock of sheep. We graze on God’s goodness, grace and kindness every day. If we are sheep who hear the master’s voice calling us to our task then we will be thoroughly aerating the soil of cultural life by transformative engagement, sowing the seeds of the kingdom and fertilizing that soil by our constant involvement within all aspects of culture. Without us, what kind of soil will our culture become? According to Christ, gospel seed that falls in shallow soil on the path or on a dry stony place cannot take proper root and bear fruit. Of course as Christians we cannot govern the hearts of men or compel an obedient response to the gospel, but we can be diligent in preparing the ground of culture with the truth and life of the Word so that the seeds of the gospel can be scattered into a culturally aerated and fertilized place. We can worship and serve, care and steward all things in obedience to Christ and his Word. We can fulfill our cultural mandate and the Great Commission. We can pursue true righteousness and justice, real cultural beauty, which the Bible calls the kingdom of God. Moreover, as we live in obedience to God’s word-revelation in all cultural life, those around us will be blessed and flourish because of the faithfulness of God’s people.

Without the aerating activity of the people of the second Adam, our fellow human beings in the grip of apostasy will eventually starve culturally, for they will turn all aspects of life into a desert by sin and lawlessness. But according to Scripture the gospel turns the valley of Baca into a place of springs (Ps. 84:6). The Bible is replete with images of deserts or parched lands bursting into life with rivers, streams, fertility and plenty when God acts on behalf of and through his people (Ps. 78:16; Isa. 43:19; Rev. 22:1-2). As we participate in cultural life in terms of God’s Word, the desertification of culture is reversed and God’s kingdom life returns and grows. The cultural desert of our time can become a place of springs by the power of the Holy Spirit working through an obedient people. We have an obligation as Christians to leave this world richer and more fruitful than we found it (Matt. 25:14-30). The survival of our present civilization depends on the gospel of a restored and renewed creation and our abiding faithfulness to God’s Word. In a word … obedience is green!

[1] Ben Rosen, “A new California law is going after one of the single biggest greenhouse gas emitters,” Business Insider, September 20, 2016, http://www.businessinsider.com/california-regulating-cow-farts-greenhouse-gases-2016-9.

[2] Allan Savory, “Holistic Resource Management: A Conceptual Framework for Ecologically Sound Economic Modelling,” Ecological Economics, 3, 1991 (181-191).

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