What have we done to the earth?

Based on Jonah 3:1-5,10

We live in interesting times. You would have to be living under a rock to be unaware of recent events in the USA. In particular the previous president refusing to concede defeat when he was voted out of office, claiming the election was rigged, and inciting an armed insurrection that resulted in the deaths of five people. [1]


Now I am not trying to preach partisan politics here; I am merely recounting what happened. But the new president, Joe Biden, was inaugurated last week. And one of his first actions as president was to take immediate steps to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord. Which was enough to show me that the USA is no longer an outlier state but is once again part of our community.


I thought about President Biden’s actions while I was reflecting on today’s Older Testament lesson from the Book of Jonah, one of the books of the minor prophets in the Bible. Jonah is also part of the Nevi’im, or The Prophets, of the Hebrew scriptures, where the minor prophets comprise a single book, and also – with slight variations – part of the Qur’an.


Jonah is arguably the best known of the minor prophets. We all know the story of the title character Jonah, who tries to run away from his mission and ends up being swallowed up by a whale – or a great fish – depending on what translation you are using – for three days, which immediately precedes the text we heard this morning.


I personally believe the story to be allegorical rather than factual. Notwithstanding the inability of any sea creature to swallow poor Jonah whole in the first place, nobody could survive for three days in any animal’s belly with no fresh air to breath while being constantly marinated in stomach acid. But I digress.


In the text we heard today, Jonah follows his call to preach to the people of the great city of Nineveh, the people repent, and God spares them from the destruction that had been promised.


My personal reaction to this story is mixed. I am somewhat disturbed by the violence and destruction that was destined for the people of Nineveh. And I really want to stress that I am not just referring to the violence that would be inflicted on the people, but also upon their environment.


The Book of Genesis tells the story of the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. [2] And while to this day, many widely claim the destruction was God’s response to sexual practices, scripture makes it clear that – in the case of Sodom anyway – their real sin was greed and inhospitality; the Book of Ezekiel tells us, “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” [3]. But we have no idea what the people of Nineveh did, or why all inhabitants in this vast city deserved to die.


I sometimes really struggle with violence in the Bible, the Older Testament in particular. Especially when it is presented as being commanded by God, implying that the God of the Older Testament is some kind of violent despot.


People try to employ all manner of mental and verbal gymnastics to try to explain away the violence in the Older Testament.


Some try to reject the violent depiction of God in parts of the Older Testament as being wholly incompatible with the God revealed in Jesus.


Others openly embrace the violence and claim it is all part of God’s plans.  


And others try to find middle ground, such as contextualising the violence, trying to justify or reinterpret it so it is less confronting. But none of these approaches are really helpful.


I attempt to resolve the issue by trying to consider the cultural and historical contexts of the original texts to help me understand how they might possibly be speaking to us today. I remain mindful that the writers did not have our understanding of environmental issues or know that destroying cities could have consequences for the planet as well as the people. And I use Jesus and his teachings as the benchmark against which the messages of the text should be measured.


So rather than interpreting violent texts as saying the Israelites had a violent God, it makes more sense me to say to say that those who wrote down and edited the stories hundreds of years later made the depictions of their God violent at times to justify the more violent aspects of their own struggles.


Reading challenging, violent texts, like those we find in parts of the Older Testament reminds of the harsh, cruel, and unforgiving world Jesus was born into and would later transform. It can challenge our views of power structures in the world and help us to examine the role violence has played in our lives, especially the privilege it has created for some of us, as we try to find our place in a post-colonial Aotearoa New Zealand.


And prompt us to ask why we continue to abuse the planet we live on for short term gain.

But while I may be disturbed by the inherent sanctioning of violence in texts, I am comforted by God having a change of mind and sparing Nineveh. Not just because of the mercy that was bestowed upon the people and the land on which they lived, but because the text states quite clearly that God’s plans are not always set in stone.


I was exposed to some of the worst extremes of Calvinism while I was growing up, including some very rigid views of predestination, namely that some people were ‘saved’, while most were ‘doomed’. And if we weren’t one of the ‘elect’, there was nothing we could do about it.


To suggest God could give life to billions of people who were doomed from birth is appallingly bad theology. But today’s Lesson makes it clear that God can and does change their mind.


Unfortunately, bad theology also extends to environmental issues; some extreme Christians sects actually take the granting to human of dominion over all living things of the Earth as being licence to rape and plunder the planet without restraint [4] and some of them even consider people who care about the environment to be evil.


And not only do some extreme Christians sects take no issue with the violence we wreak upon the world; some even see the chaos it is causing the planet as being a sign of the end times and the imminent return of Jesus.


To use one of my favourite mild English profanities, that is complete bollocks.


Let’s put what we have done to the planet into perspective. The earth is 4.6 billion years old. If we scale that back to 46 years, humans have been here for four hours, the industrial revolution began one minute ago, and in that time, we’ve destroyed more than half the world’s forests.


As The Doors asked in their 1967 song ‘When the Music’s Over’, “What have they done to the earth, yeah? What have they done to our fair sister?” [5]


You will of course all be familiar with climate change and will have heard of its potentially catastrophic consequences.


Now there is an awful lot of conspiracy fantasy out there that muddies the waters. But I can assure you that scientists overwhelmingly agree on the reality of climate change and how human activity is a significant factor.


And the consequences of ignoring it are grim.


As followers of Jesus, we have a sacred responsibility to care for God’s creation. And while it is sometimes suggested we may have left it too late to deal with climate change, I live in hope that we have begun to act in the nick of time.


I have fond memories of Maria and some of her friends avoiding school for the day to participate in a global youth strike and make a stand about climate change. This gave me great hope for the future, and I was extremely proud of them.

Like the people of Nineveh did in the story, we also have the opportunity to avert destruction. Joe Biden may have put the world’s strongest military power back on track in responding to climate change, but we also need to play our part.


But we are a small country, you may say. We don’t have the resources or the clout of the Biden administration.


But remember how in the story of Jonah, one man changed a whole city.


If we can’t make a huge change on our own, we can still make a difference. And I will conclude with a little story the Chief Executive at my work is fond of telling.


One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean. Approaching the boy, he asked, “What are you doing?” The youth replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.” “Son,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!”


After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf. Then, smiling at the man, he said…” I made a difference for that one.” [6]

Darryl Ward
24 January 2021



1 The death toll has subsequently risen to six.

2 Genesis 19:12-29

3 Ezekiel 16:49

4 Genesis 1:26-28

5 The Doors, ‘When The Music’s Over’ (1967)

6 http://www.ataturksociety.org/the-starfish-story-original-story-by-loren-eisley/ (retrieved 23 January 2021)



All Bible references are from the New Revised Standard Versions (NRSV) unless otherwise stated.