Keeping the Lights On
Ps 8, Gen 1:1–2:4, Matt 28:16-20
by Katherine Roberts
June 15, 2014
After the fire and wonder in the Acts reading from last week, we return to the beginning, to the creation story in Genesis. The two passages seem quite different, jarring in juxtaposition, even. And yet they are similar in their global scope.
In Acts people from everywhere, from “every nation under heaven” assemble and miraculously understand each other (Acts 2:5). Our pageant participants contributed to the rich imagery of the Pentecost event with their spoken Swahili, Hindi and Spanish—representing the global intentions, if not actual reach, of the early evangelists.
And in the Genesis passage for today, God creates the whole earth, everything on it and above it. There is nothing more global, anywhere.
Acts, though, is cultural. It is historical. It is full of specific names: Peter; Jews; residents of Mesopotamia, Egypt and parts of Libya; visitors from Rome; Cretens and Arabians. Real places; real time.
The first chapter of Genesis, on the other hand, is completely ahistorical, occurring in mythic time. It isn’t until Chapter 2 in Genesis, when God has completed the work of making heaven and earth, that we are introduced to specific geographic sites at all. The Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers, for example.
Our creation story for today carries us away with mythic possibility. It is a delight to read.
Genesis 1:20 reads:
“And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth and across the firmament of the heavens.’ So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.”
In these words we may revel in the splendor of the natural world, of ecologies, the interconnectedness of those plants yielding seed, those winged birds, the creeping things and beasts.
And then we get to the part about dominion, where God gives humankind all of creation to harness and subdue in the interest of survival and prosperity. We may read this passage today with a heavy heart, knowing what we know about the cascading consequences of this dominion.
Genesis: 1: 26 reads:
And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
I’m certainly no biblical scholar and I don’t know what the Aramaic, Hebrew or Greek nuances of the word “dominion” may be, but I just wish the word had been “stewardship” here instead.
Dominion. It is also used in our Psalm for today (Psalm 8):
“Thou hast given humankind dominion over the works of thy hands,” says the psalmist.
Dominion. It means rule or authority. And it requires human action. When people act upon the earth, subduing resources for survival, culture and society develop. Hunter/gatherers; herders; agriculturalists—all exert dominion over God’s creation. As a result, they form beliefs, customs, arts and ways of organizing and regulating themselves. They form, we could say, a way of life.
Our way of life today depends on the extraction of fossil fuels from God’s good earth. Part of my push-back against car culture has been to try to teach our children how to walk places, ride public transportation and know where the fuel comes from that we dump into our car way too often.
When I was working full-time, I always took Fridays off to be with them. We either took a long morning walk through the woods and over to the park at Southern Village or we rode the bus into town. On town days, we often ended up in Carrboro, poking around the railroad tracks that cross Main Street near The Cat’s Cradle. We’d sit at the railway café, munching on peanuts and waiting for trains to come by. Friday morning is good for train action in Carrboro. A train would sound its long, low whistle, and we’d huddle as close as we dared to the tracks to watch it roll into town.
Behind the engine were a line of freight cars, filled to the rim with coal. I explained to Serena and Daniel that it was headed to the power plant on UNC’s campus. They’d burn the coal to make electricity. That’s how the lights came on and the air conditioners and the heaters at the university. The coal, they already knew, came from West Virginia.
We’ve worn a track up 77 to Parkersburg, West Virginia, where my parents live. Our children have seen enough coal on tipples, in piles, and on barges along the Kanawha River to know where the fossil fuel comes from. Soon they’ll be able to read the billboards near Charleston that say “Coal keeps the lights on” and “Friends of Coal.”
I don’t think I’ve ever said anything critical about the power plant at UNC or about coal as an energy source. I have said that it’s going to run out. “We’re going to use it all up,” I’ve said. “And the oil and the natural gas, too.” And in the process, of course, we’re going to further heat up our planet.
Now, I lived long enough in the union strong rust belt to understand the importance of jobs and the significance of extractive and chemical industries to regional identity. Good work makes it possible for people to stay put and keep their family and community networks intact. Loss of jobs means out-migration, poverty, and social problems. Indeed, many church youth groups travel to Appalachian counties devastated by job loss to do work projects.
People who raise their voices against the coal, oil and gas or chemical industries often suffer harsh criticism and social exclusion at home. When several local residents brought a class-action lawsuit against DuPont’s Washington Works, just four miles from my parents’ house near Parkersburg, everyone learned that the company had been allowing perfluorooctanoic acid (or C8), used in the production of Teflon, to leach into the ground water. We’d all been drinking it in high concentration for years. The verdict is still out on the health risks associated with exposure to C8, but preliminary indicators suggest a link with increased incidents of thyroid disease, birth defects, and high cholesterol (see: C8 Probable Links Report: http://www.c8sciencepanel.org/prob_link.html).
Yet, many people were critical of the lawsuit. When I mentioned it to a high school friend, she said: “If they don’t stop complaining, DuPont’s going to pull clear out of the valley.” And with it, take its jobs. Jobs that put food on the table, send children to college, and keep extended families in community.
We are all thoroughly enmeshed in a way of life built on chemical production and the burning of fossil fuels that are so detrimental to “everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life” (Genesis 1:30).
Is it possible, I wonder, to be part of the wrong thing and still do the right thing?
We here all get it. The climate is changing. We bike and walk when we can. We drive fuel-efficient cars. We garden, raise chickens, recycle, shop consignment. And yet, we’re caught up in the consumption and mobility that are dominion’s legacies.
It is from this fundamentally paradoxical human position that I want to pay tribute to so many of the fathers I know. They are the ones who leave home in the dark and clock thousands of miles on commutes to the fertilizer factory or the state office building. Or the ones who read oil and gas pump gauges or frack for a living. They are the ones, like my own, who load military aircraft and go to war. Some are affectionate. Some of them can cry. Most don’t. Many are operating from emotional deficits several generations deep. But every one of them comes home at night, pays the bills and keeps the lights on so their children can thrive. For this I thank them and all fathers who press on under the weight that dominion gathers.
American poet Robert Hayden captures the poignancy of fathers doing right, doing wrong in his poem, “Those Winter Sundays”:
Those Winter Sundays
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
~ 1966 (from The Collected Poems of Robert Hayden)
After the grand, mythic opening of Genesis, with all its wonderful and terrible potential, Jesus’s words at the end of the book of Matthew, which we read today, come like sweet repose: “…lo,” he said, “I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:20).