I recently learned about a rather interesting statement made back in 2009 by Representative John Shimkus of Ilinois about the Bible and climate change. The reason I just heard about it this week is that Representative Shimkus is now, following the turnover of the House, in the running for chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
What Representative Shimkus said was based on a couple of verses from chapter 8 of the Book of Genesis about God’s promise to Noah after the flood:
Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though all inclinations of his heart are evil from childhood and never again will I destroy all living creatures as I have done.
As long as the earth endures, seed time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, will never cease.
According to Representative Shimkus, this promise means we don’t ever have to worry about climate change because, “I believe that is the infallible word of God, and that's the way it is going to be for his creation... The earth will end only when God declares its time to be over. Man will not destroy this earth. This earth will not be destroyed by a flood."
That statement made me think about the little Manhattan apartment I lived in when I was going to law school. Actually, it made me think a whole lot of things, but since I try to keep this blog polite, I’ll go with the apartment one.
When I rented the apartment, as I was then learning in law school, the landlord made certain promises to me. The most important of these is the implied warranty of habitability. This means that the landlord effectively agreed, in renting to me, not to do anything that would make the apartment functionally impossible to live in, such as shutting off the heat or letting toxic mold run rampant in the building. If those sorts of things happened, I was entitled to a rent abatement.
God’s promise to Noah is very much in this vein. He is promising that, as long as humans inhabit the Earth, he will not cause destruction that would make the earth functionally uninhabitable.
However, when I signed the lease, I also made some promises of my own about how I was going to treat the apartment. And my landlord, in agreeing not to render the apartment uninhabitable, was not promising to come in and fix everything if it were my actions, not his, that rendered the place unlivable. The landlord’s warranty of habitability was not a guarantee that the premises would remain habitable if I decided to punch holes through the walls, raise poultry in the living room, or rip out the floorboards for firewood. Not only would I be on my own, but I would probably be cruising for an eviction notice.
In the same way, God’s promise to Noah not to destroy the Earth is accompanied by stern warnings that human actions could still nonetheless render the land uninhabitable. The books of Moses and the Hebrew prophets both contain strong admonitions about the impact of human wrongdoing on the Earth and its ability to sustain us. In Leviticus 26, God warns the Israelites that obedience to His commands (which included many commands about how to care for the Earth) would result in “rain in its season” and a sufficient harvest, while lack of obedience would mean that “your soil will not yield its crops.” In this same vein, the prophet Hosea warns that, because of actions stemming from human greed and selfishness, “the land mourns, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the fish of the sea are dying.” Similarly, from the prophet Isaiah:
Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the and. The Lord Almighty has declared in my hearing: “Surely the great houses will become desolate, the fine mansions left without occupants. A ten-acre vineyard will produce only a bath of wine, a homer of seed only an ephah of grain.”
We cannot, in other words, expect to trash our planetary apartment and have our heavenly Landlord bail us out.
This metaphor of God as our landlord is not my own invention. The books of Moses have God telling the Israelites rather unambiguously, “The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine, and you are but aliens and my tenants.” (This command, by the way, is given in support of the biblical law that all land must be returned to its original owners every 50 years – a practice I have not, for some reason, heard the Bible-quoting climate change deniers clamoring to implement as national policy.) According to Scripture we are not owners of the Earth, but renters: protected by our Landlord’s promises but subject to tenants’ obligations.
So if Representative Shimkus really intends to use the Bible as his guide to setting climate change policy, I hope he’ll take another look at the terms of humankind’s lease on the planet. Which if you ask me, probably should have included a damage deposit.