Today we are pleased to share the latest post in our weekly series, Beyond the Book. This month A.J. Swoboda will be discussing the deep connections between Christian faith and environmental stewardship.
Jesus had a few lectures on dirt. For example, in the Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13:1-23) Jesus describes various soil conditions; all conditions, mind you, that can be seen in today’s environment. Jesus, for one, speaks of a sort of soil that’s not deep enough where the plant “sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow.” Of course shallow topsoil is a reality today as it was in the first century. Today, however, it is the result of the unprecedented removal and transference of rich topsoil that allows us to grow our food. Plants minus soil can’t grow—Jesus, the permaculturist, got this far before we did. Shallow dirt means no food.
Even Jesus’ fictional, parabolic characters were aware that soil couldn’t produce an infinite, limitless yield of produce or product. We see in the Parable of the Vineyard (Luke 13:6-9) a vineyard owner demanding that a tree be cut down for its fruitfulness—”Cut it down!,” the owner commands, “Why should it use up the soil?” (v. 7) Any vineyard owner knew there were boundaries in creation. Even a fictional character in Jesus’ parable knows that there is a limited amount of soil to grow his crops. As Luke continues his gospel, Jesus appears aware that there are some things—in this case, “salt that’s lost its saltiness”—that simply couldn’t (or shouldn’t) be spread upon soil or the compost pile (Luke 14:34-35). Bad salt was bad for the soil.
What’s most surprising, of course, is how we have here a first century peasant teaching us soil preservation and protection far before modern environmentalism did. Dirt, the Creator knows, is very important to the flourishing of creation. The destruction of soil is becoming very quickly the destruction of humanity. As Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry have written, “Agriculture has too often involved an insupportable abuse and waste of soil, ever since the first farmers took away the soil-saving cover and roots of perennial plants. Civilizations have destroyed themselves by destroying their farmland.”
In the end, soil degradation is people degradation; one can’t mess with soil without messing with humanity. This should speak pointedly even to those Christians who do not envision environmental issues as pertinent given their view that humanity is at the top of God’s care chart. Even if that is true, to care for the earth is of grave importance because in refusing to care for it, we refuse to care for humanity. If humanity is the center of the universe, as some Christians claim, then we must care for the soil.
A. J. Swoboda (PhD, University of Birmingham) teaches biblical studies, theology, and church history at George Fox Evangelical Seminary and Fuller Seminary, among others. He pastors Theophilus church in Portland, Oregon, and is the author of A Glorious Dark and coauthor of Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology