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A Pandemic for Earth Day; or, On the Need to Respect Boundaries

Human beings have always had a hard time living within limits. In the Book of Genesis, we read that God created the first human beings and gave them a garden to tend. God permitted them to eat anything that grew in the garden except the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Guess which fruit they chowed down on? As a result of their failure to live within God’s limits, a curse fell upon the earth.

To slow the spread of the coronavirus we find ourselves constrained by rigorous and even burdensome limits. No groups of 10 or more. Give a wide berth to your fellow human beings—six feet at least. Stay at home, unless you must go to the grocery store, the pharmacy, or the doctor’s office. Close your factories, your stores, your schools, your athletic arenas.

But there’s a silver lining to living within these constraints. Air pollution is down. Residents of Delhi can see the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas. English astronomers report that there are so many more stars to see these days. When humans live within limits, it’s a blessing for the earth.

Now we can’t shutter forever large swaths of the economy just for sake of sightseeing and stargazing. But neither should we get back to normal. Normal wasn’t normal. We were acting like the virus that’s stalking us. We were running roughshod over the planet, making our host sick.

If a virus kills its host, the virus dies too. Clean air and water are in our interests. In fact, that’s the whole point of why we’re here! In the Book of Genesis, God gives humans “dominion” over the earth. Dominion doesn’t mean exploitation. It means that human beings are to rule the earth in a way that is keeping with God’s character. And God’s character is revealed in Jesus Christ, “who came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” We were destined to serve the creation, not exploit it.

Reformed Christians have always insisted that we cannot overcome this tendency to break boundaries by sheer willpower. We need the grace of Christ to renew our hearts. When our hearts are touched by the grace of God, we desire the things God desires for us. Living within limits ceases to feel oppressive. Limits mark the place where I end and the Other begins, whether it’s another human being, a neighbor’s yard, a forest, or an ocean. Limits make love and mutual respect possible. Limits allow for humans and the creation to sustain each other.

If the environmental crisis we face is rooted in humanity’s perennial failure to respect limits and execute its God-given mission, then the solution to this crisis will ultimately be faith-based. You get this. You’re an Earth Care Congregation. You recycle. You pick up trash in the neighborhood. Your Vacation Bible School curricula has taught children to give thanks for the wonders of creation. You’ve reduced our carbon footprint with energy efficient lighting. On Earth Day, April 22, let’s prayerfully dream of a future in which, by God’s grace, we have learned to live within limits, and “the mountains and the hills... break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12).

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