We looked for the Monarch butterflies nearly all summer – that beautiful lacework of orange and black wings punctuated by brilliant white spots. The flower gardens were full of inviting zinnia, Echinacea, bee balm and more. The wetland meadow offered abundant milkweeds and vital habitat. And many species accepted the invitation. Swallowtails, skippers, common blues and more. But where were the Monarchs?
Finally, in the fading days of summer, our vigil received its first reward. A single Monarch, followed by a second, rummaging through the zinnias. They remained for the better part of one week, before they left us on their journey to warmer climes. But during those few days, we gaped and pointed to our granddaughters: Look how beautiful! It’s a Monarch!
Our little girls are growing up with a new baseline reality: Monarch butterflies are rare and beautiful like diamonds. In a good year you just might get to see one or two.
So where did they all go? Well, they didn’t exactly go anywhere. They have died. By most accounts, more than 90 percent of the Monarch population has vanished in the last 20 years. In 2004, an estimated 550 million Monarchs completed the winter migration; by 2013, that number had fallen more than ten-fold, to only 33 million. And as I read the data, the downward spiral is accelerating year by year.
The culprit? Well, mainly people like you and me, mowing down the life-giving milkweed that sustains the butterflies, and spraying them with herbicides. We find the milkweeds and other wild plants to be inconvenient in our yards and farm fields. The Monarchs die by the millions.
I miss the Monarchs. But it turns out that their decline is only one vivid snapshot of a mass genocide being carried out over the whole natural world. This year, the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) completed its Living Planet Report 2014, an exhaustive study of more than 10,000 populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish. Its findings were nothing short of shocking: Populations of vertebrate species on Earth have declined by 52 percent since 1970.
To be sure we’re clear on this, the number of all living vertebrates on Earth has declined by more than one-half over forty years. In the span of roughly one human generation, half the mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians – all gone. It’s as though Moses leads the children of Israel into Sinai; and by the time they cross the Jordan, half of all God’s creatures are dead.
Do you think this might be newsworthy? And beyond the news, do you think it has any special significance for followers of Jesus Christ?
I do. And here’s why. There is no lack of discussion in our day about the Creation account in the book of Genesis. But as we go back and forth on largely inconsequential matters of interpretation, we’re prone to miss some of the most important elements of Creation theology. Let me suggest three seldom-acknowledged nuggets:
- God made mankind to be stewards in His place, exercising wise dominion on His behalf over His creatures as His beloved possessions;
- God placed mankind in his Creation to serve it, as well as to be sustained by it; and
- When all went awry, and God’s judgment fell upon mankind, God directed his chosen person to save not only himself, but also every single species He had created.
That awkward word: Dominion. In the first chapter of Genesis, we read that God gave to humanity “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” In our day, we hear the forces of environmental abuse appealing to this passage to support the ongoing exploitation of nature for human consumption. But however we react to the word “dominion,” scripture doesn’t allow for this view. “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it,” declares King David (Psalm 24:1). It’s the Lord’s, not ours. If we have been made rulers, then our dominion is to protect what belongs to God.
And in case we need further clarity about dominion, the Incarnate Word came among us to exercise His dominion over His world. And what did that dominion look like? The apostle Mark records the words of Jesus: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). When the true Ruler of Creation walked among us, he exercised his dominion in service, not exploitation.
We also were created to serve the Creation. In Genesis 2, we find that the Man is placed in the Garden for a specific purpose: to “tend and keep” it. It wasn’t written in English, of course, and translators have struggled over how best to render the Hebrew words: AVAD and SHAMAR. AVAD becomes “tend,” or “till,” or “cultivate.” But they are all disappointing. Consider Joshua’s farewell address to the children of Israel: “Choose this day whom you will AVAD…. But as for me and my house, we will AVAD the Lord.” I can assure you that Joshua had no plans to “cultivate” the Lord. And when added to SHAMAR, the Hebrew gives us the unmistakable sense of mankind created to SERVE and PROTECT the Creation.
Redemption is for all the creatures, not just the people. The account of Noah and the flood is recorded in Genesis 6, where God commands a man to build a boat for his family to be saved. But not just his family; “Of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark to keep them alive with you.” Indeed, when we retell the story, we almost tend to forget about the people, don’t we? “The animals went in two by two, the elephant and the kangaroo,” we tell our children in rhyme and song.
And in case you think that we’re missing the point, God himself includes the animals in the promise we mistakenly refer to as “God’s covenant with Noah.” Scripture tells us that He said: “I establish my covenant with you (Noah) and your offspring after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark; it is for every beast of the earth” (Gen. 9:9-10).
If this is true, then how are we doing? Christians are usually quick to admit failure. “If we confess our sins,” we tell ourselves, “He is faithful and just to forgive us….” But at a time when we have been complicit in a culture of Creation-abuse never seen in human history, surely we cannot look for cheap grace by simply acknowledging our failings, and hoping to be forgiven. God has given us special responsibility, or dominion, for what he has made. Our mission is to serve and protect the Creation to which God has bound himself by covenant. And on our watch, half of it has turned up missing. The immediate future looks even more grim, with the pressures of habitat destruction, exploitation through hunting and fishing, and climate change.
On Pentecost, those listening to St. Peter’s first sermon were cut to the heart, and asked the apostles: “Brothers, what shall we do?” They could not undo the betrayal and crucifixion of the Son of Man. But now they needed to figure out where to go from here.
It’s not so different for us, is it? We’ve been caught red-handed – gluttonous consumers destroying the Creation which we have been entrusted as stewards. Now, half of it is gone in the span of our lifetime. We are digging & drilling, paving & spraying, burning & polluting – and now much of what remains is in dire peril.
Those Monarch butterflies are but brilliant signposts along our path of consumption and destruction. Brothers, what shall we do?