By Jim Dekker
At a recent meeting of CPJ’s Board of Directors, an agenda item proposed changing one word in our mission statement. After a spirited discussion, we voted unanimously to replace “stewardship” with “the flourishing of creation.”
A compelling reason for the decision was that “stewardship” has popularly come to mean only use of financial resources. To others, stewardship suggests dominance by human beings over creation. That, though, misreads the sense of “ruling over” in Genesis 1:26 and 28. The context of God’s “cultural mandate” in those verses charges humans to be benevolent caretakers of creation. That is what it means to live in God’s image. In any case, flourishing is a more vivid word.
Creation will truly flourish when God’s human images pray over it and practice stewardship.
Despite the word change, the fertile biblical concept of stewardship remains a core element in CPJ’s vision and mission. Thus, the fascinating, somewhat comical, history of the word “steward” is rich and worthy of brief reflection by CPJ’s community.
“Steward” derives from two colourful Middle English words, stig (or sti) and weard. A stig was a hall, a house, or some kind of abode. A weard was a guard or keeper; the word itself an ancestor of today’s “warden.” So a stigweard was someone charged with protection and oversight of something basic and of elemental value for life itself: shelter. (Interestingly, stig is also the root word for a filthy place, as in “pigsty.” While pigs were and are valuable indeed and should be protected, perhaps some folks in not-so-merry olde England referred to the dwellings of slovenly neighbours as stigs fit only for pigs. But I digress.)
Over time, “steward” accrued a broad connotation as management of any valuable resource. In environmental issues, stewardship came also to embrace the deeply rooted and widely held principle of devoted care for, indeed, flourishing of creation.
Creation includes creatures vertebrate or spineless; singlecelled or many-limbed; fish and fowl; people and pets; the “cattle on a thousand hills” and “the rivers and the rocks and rills”; lakes and seas; fossil fuels and fossils themselves; metals precious, semi-precious, or common; the stars that shine and the planets and moons that reflect starlight in galaxies and worlds far beyond the range of any state-of-theart telescope. This call to stewardship is rooted in the Hebrew Scripture of Genesis 2:15, “the LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”
“Work it and take care of it.” The meanings of those lovely, pre-fall words were the biblical prescription the Creator wrote for 20/20 human vision of creation care embraced by CPJ and many other organizations and people still today. Their principles and mandates do not all grow from Judeo-Christian roots, but they often intertwine in common efforts to sustain the planet and God’s universe.
The Hebrew word translated “work” is abad. The same word is rendered “serve” in other contexts. Thus, someone who works a garden or land as God’s servant will keep it in good shape, preserving its nutrients and enriching it. God’s people are to serve God’s handiwork of creation.
Of course, there are other ways to work God’s garden, hardly serving it. Some work the land by strip mining, clearcutting, and cultivating it to virtual death, before moving on to agrarian or industrial villainy elsewhere. Thus the Amazon rainforest continues to disappear. This is also why cotton and tobacco were kings for relatively short times in the United States.
Then there’s the phrase “take care,” an adequate but bland translation of the sonorous Hebrew root shomer. The use of the word in the Hebrew Scriptures, though, is anything but bland. In other places, Exodus 20:6 for example, a form of shomer describes those who “keep my [i.e., Yahweh’s] commandments” and receive mercy. Adding another layer to its many connotations, shomer is also the word used to “observe the Sabbath,” to guard it, to keep it holy, as in Exodus 31:13, 14.
All this joins pleasingly, forming a spiritual and ethical imperative of stewardship of creation. One that is not defined by our exploitation over creation, but rather our role as caretakers. Creation will truly flourish when God’s human images pray over it and practice stewardship. It will be an offering of thanks, restored and preserved until we can hand it back to Christ on his return to the new heavens and new earth, the garden in the holy city of Revelation 21 and 22, the place where Eden’s Tree of Life will once again feed the cosmos with its “leaves for the healing of the nations.”
Jim Dekker is a semi-retired pastor of the Christian Reformed Church. He represents Southwestern Ontario on Citizens for Public Justice’s Board of Directors and lives in St. Catharines, Ontario.