God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and
increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the
fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living
creature that moves on the ground." Gen 1:28
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden
to work it and take care of it. Gen 2:15
Do not pervert justice ... Follow justice and justice alone,
so that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is
giving you. Duet. 16:19-20
These three verses sum up three key concepts that should direct
our view, attitude and responsibility towards the world around
us. In these verses we are instructed to 'subdue and rule over'
God's creation (have dominion over it); we are to 'work
it and take care of it' (exercise stewardship) and we are
to do so 'justly'.
Christians have traditionally been familiar with the first of
these instructions and Christendom has received it's fair share
of criticism for contributing to the environmental degradation
we see around us. We hear less about our stewardly responsibility
towards the environment, but how many of us have thought and been
challenged about our responsibility for exercising dominion and
stewardship in a just manner? Following the standard evident
in the life and death of Christ as an example of how we should
exercise our lordship over creation?
Before we can be stewards, we need something over which we can
exercise stewardship, something sufficiently within our control,
or the call to exercise stewardship becomes a hollow one. Yet
the reality is that while we can all exercise stewardship over
our time and our talents, there are millions of people who lack
'stewardly possibilities' over creation - so much so that many
cannot prevent their own and their children's starvation. Although
all men are equal, it is abundantly clear that not all are equally
blessed with the same share of the earth's resources.
In this country we are blessed with many natural resources and
we know it. We enjoy it and we take pride in it when we show others
- particularly friends and relatives from the 'old country' who,
we know, do not enjoy the rich diversity and unspoiled beauty
we enjoy. This should and does make us thankful. But it also sets
us apart from our neighbours in Asia, Africa and South America
who do not enjoy the same share of the world and access to its
resources that we do.
Those of us of European descent do well to remind ourselves that
we live in Polynesia and number a mere twenty million (mainly
New Zealand, Australia and South Africa) amongst billions of people
from other races in the Southern Hemisphere. We traveled past
some very populated and impoverished countries on our way here.
The inequality in access to resources is close by and we can't
ignore it. Given the education, communication and travel revolution
of the past few decades, how long can this situation continue?
I believe this is an area we will be challenged in at some stage
in the next few decades - at least intellectually if not physically.
If so, we should consider what Scripture has to say about this
issue so we can shed light and give clear direction on how we
as a nation should deal with such a challenge.
At the heart of any debate on the matter will be the question
of the 'justice' of the existing distribution of resources amongst
the world's people. As a nation we have been forced to face this
question head-on through the claims for the return of land and
other resources from our indigenous population. Given that there
is a direct relationship between our access to natural resources
and our state of nutrition, warmth and shelter, the fair sharing
of natural resources is an important matter. Who should use how
much of what? Who 'owns' what? How, in short, may the goods of
the world and the opportunities to use them be distributed justly?
We talk often of the just distribution of goods, services and
burdens such as meat at the dinner table, hospital services within
a community and jobs around the home. We have rules, policies
and scales to ensure everyone gets a fair share of such things.
But what is a fair share? As a general rule, goods are shared
fairly when all that are equal are treated equally and those that
are different are treated differently in proportion to their relevant
differences. In other words, when the meat is cut and distributed
around the dinner table, fourteen year old Mary going through
a growth spurt gets more than Dad who gets the same as Mum, but
less than seventeen year old Ben who shovels coal in a coal mine
all day. The relevant difference here is the energy and nutritional
needs of each person. An irrelevant difference would be
the fact that Ben was better looking than Mary and if he got more
meat as a consequence of that difference, the family would be
So it is with the distribution of natural resources amongst the
world's population. If the existing distribution is based on relevant
differences, it is fair. If not, it is unfair. What then is a
'relevant difference' when considering the distribution of the
earths resources? Clearly there is no universally accepted answer
to this question, hence we have wars. Before examining what Scripture
says in answer to this question, lets look at how the world views
1. To each according to national, racial or social status.
An extreme form of such a relevant difference is slavery, where
slaveowners see nothing wrong with using resources on a grander
scale because it is 'what they deserve'. Similarly, the caste
system in India results in the distribution of resources on the
basis of class. In both examples the accident of being born into
a particular society or class within a society is seen as justification
for receiving a greater or lesser share of the earth's resources.
2. To each according to contribution
The more you actually contribute, the more you get. Labour
unions and profit-sharing schemes within businesses use this view
of relevant difference as the basis for their claim to a fair
distribution of profits.
3. To each according to effort.
The effort you expend is more relevant than the actual contribution
you make, according to this view. Because we are all created differently,
we cannot control our actual contribution so much as our individual
effort, hence our fair share should be based on effort. Who deserves
more - a farmer in Ethiopia who spends sixteen hours a day ploughing
a field with his oxen or the New Zealand farmer who can plough
the same area in half an hour with his tractor?
4. To each according to need
Once one has determined what a person needs, it is unjust (in
this view) to deprive a person of it. Hence poverty, starvation
or illiteracy are 'unjust'. Those with great need should receive
more than those with little need.
5. To each the same
Those who hold to this view consider there are no relevant differences
amongst the world's people that could justify some having more
than others. Each should receive an equal share of the world's
6. To each the same unless an inequality benefits the poorest
This view says that if you buy an estate in remote South America
and become rich, but in doing so you give jobs to the locals so
they also raise their standard of living, that justifies your
getting the larger share of the wealth created. It is a view gaining
increasing popularity in recent years.
Having touched on the variety of views the world holds, what does
Scripture teach us about the fair distribution of the earth's
resources? A good place to begin is with the Laws given to the
nation of Israel setting out how, amongst other things, they
were to allocate resources.
In Leviticus we read of the 'Law of Jubilee', requiring the return
of land to the owners originally given the land when the nation
was established. In Exodus the 'Law of the Sabbath Year' is set
out, requiring the resting of land every seventh year. The poor
could eat whatever grew in that year. In Dueteronomy we read of
the 'Law of the Tithe', requiring a tenth of the harvest to be
set aside for the Levites (who were not given land) and travelers,
widows and the fatherless. The 'Law on Gleaning' set out in Leviticus
required that fields not be completely stripped of all their produce
by their owners, but some be left for the poor and sojourner.
What principles can we deduce from these Laws? The one that stands
out most clearly is that everyone should have access to resources
based on their need. Note the word access - three
of the Laws required work on the part of those receiving the benefit.
However, the Law of the Tithe also guaranteed that those who could
not work (or, in the case of the Levites, were required for other
duties) still had their needs met. Everyone else shared not only
in the productivity of the land but also the burden of creating
To summarise therefore, access to a country's resources should
not be determined in the first place by social status, contribution
or effort; rather it should be determined by need. That is a minimum
requirement and should guide us when considering access to the
world's resources by the world's people.
This immediately raises two questions. Firstly what is need; secondly
how do we distribute any surplus (over that required to supply
need) in a just manner?
We have probably all heard of the three basic needs of man - food,
clothing and shelter. But Christians know that man's needs extend
to more than just that required to feed and keep him warm. Created
in the image of God, we also need time to express our creativity;
to love and be loved; to serve God and our neighbor; and take
care of creation. Yet these needs are very much secondary to the
first basic needs - I've heard it said for example that caring
for the environment is a rich man's hobby. We thus end up with
three levels of resource use:
1. That required to supply man's basic needs;
2. That required to allow us to be all that God intended us to be; and
3. That required to supply our wants.
As a minimum, I believe the Biblical principle of justice requires
that everyone in the world has enough access to the world's resources
to meet their basic needs. I also believe that if this principle
was applied by the governments of each nation, everybody within
that nation would have their basic needs met. Hence I don't consider
this an issue in terms of resource allocation amongst nations
- rather one of resource allocation amongst the peoples within
In my view the principle extends equally to man's 'non-basic'
needs. Although the poor and the widows had to work, there is
no suggestion that they had to work so much harder or longer than
others, certainly not to the extent that they could not develop
into all God intended them to be. This creates somewhat of a challenge
for us, because the farmer spending sixteen hours behind his oxen
will have a lot less time to be creative and serve God and his
neighbor than the farmer who can cover the same area in half an
hour. Yet not all the extra time we enjoy since the industrial
revolution has been spent on serving God and our neighbor and
carrying out our stewardly responsibilities towards creation.
Much of that extra has been spent satisfying our wants.
Which brings us to the crunch question, the justice of some people
having access to more resources than others, allowing them to
satisfy more wants and provide more luxuries for themselves than
others. The issue is not so much one of satisfying one's wants
at the expense of another's needs - we have a clear answer for
that one; rather one of the justness of you and I living in this
resource-rich land being able to satisfy more of our wants than
our neighbors in Asia, Africa and South America. And how we deal
with any future requests for a more equal share of our resources
so they may have an equal opportunity to satisfy their wants.
When we analyse why we are blessed with living in such a beautiful
and resource-rich country, we soon come up against the twin issues
of property rights and historical opportunity. When God made the
world he told Adam and Eve to "Be fruitful and increase
in number; fill the earth.. " and following the
flood He "scattered them (those building the
Tower of Babel) over the face of the whole earth".
Since that period of historical opportunity when men could wander
across a piece of land and claim it as their own, ownership has
changed hands either because it was traded or because weaker occupiers
were pushed off, with a range of alternatives in between.
Periods of opportunity have cropped up on a regular basis since
that time - such as the mass emigration from Europe to this side
of the world over the last few hundred years and the more recent
wave post World War II. Although we or our forefathers may claim
credit for being clever enough to come here during that period,
we also enjoyed opportunity that many living in Asia and Africa
do not enjoy even today - such as knowing that New Zealand exists,
where it is and what resources it has to offer; transport from
wherever we lived to the Coast; passage for the trip here; and
a country willing to accept us.
Therefore we enjoy a greater than average share of the earths
resources for historical reasons as much as any other. How should
we react to this, and what should guide us? May I suggest the
1. Firstly we should be thankful to God for all we have. We should
marvel at His Creation and thank Him for it daily. "The
heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work
of His hands" Psalm 19:1.
2. We remind ourselves that all men are equal and precious in
the sight of God. "And even the very hairs on your
head are all numbered. So don't be afraid; you are worth more
than many sparrows". Matthew 10:30-31.
3. We should be guided by the desire to see justice done - both
in the future allocation of the earths resources and as we examine
past wrongs. We should not do this out of any sense of guilt,
rather because we are commanded to "not pervert justice
... Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and
possess the land the Lord your God is giving " Duet
4. We should recognise that because we have a larger than average
share of the worlds resources, we also have a larger than average
share of the responsibility for exercising stewardship over it.
This extends to global environmental issues - we have a greater
understanding and can exert far more influence than someone living
in a remote village in South America, hence we should.
In doing so however, we should be mindful that many industrialised
nations have used up many of their own natural resources such
as minerals and forests and become wealthy from doing so. If we
ask the Amazonian Indians to refrain from cutting down their forests
for a global environmental benefit, are we prepared to compensate
them from the benefits we have received from our past use of our
own forestry resources?
5. As I write this article, representatives from a number of
nations are meeting here in Christchurch to discuss the formulation
and signing of a treaty covering issues such as resource use in
the Antarctic. The nations represented seem to have at least one
thing in common - they are already blessed with more than their
average share of the world's resources. Should the resources of
the Antarctic, if they are to go anywhere, go to those with the
technology (and power to secure access) or should it be used for
the benefit of those who have historically missed out?
We worship a sovereign God who takes a deep interest in his creation
and his creatures.
Mr Leo Fietje is a member of the Reformed Church of Bishopdale in which he currently serves as an elder.
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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / email@example.com / revised August 97 / Copyright 1997