Don’t Muzzle the Ox – Theological Reflections on Pollution in China
This is the second piece in a two-part series related to this topic. You can read the first post at “The Air that I Breathe” – Personal Reflections on Pollution in China. A few months ago, our blog editor asked me to contribute a few pieces reflecting on life in China specifically as it relates to pollution and the environment. I must admit that when I was first approached with the idea I was not overly exuberant. I would not really consider myself someone who supports what might be termed a “green” political agenda. Since our editor is a millennial and I know millennials feel more passionate about environmental issues than my generation does, I thought this might just be another example of that generation gap.
Recently, however, I was reading through Deuteronomy in my devotional time. Most people would not immediately think of Deuteronomy as one of those “go to” books for biblical inspiration, but God often takes us by surprise in unexpected places. As I read this portion of scripture, I was taken by surprise as to how God cares about all of his creation. It reminded me of how important all of scripture is for understanding the heart of God.
Christians often fall into the trap of neglecting the Old Testament because they think it is too difficult to apply or even irrelevant to our modern context. The New Testament seems much more easily applied and much more approachable. But the Old Testament is a great place to look for inspiration, and I recently found a bit in Deuteronomy 25:4. Because Paul quotes it in 1 Corinthians 9:9, the passage is familiar: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” In Corinthians, Paul uses it to talk about how God’s law makes provision for the basic needs of all God’s creatures, even the ox; therefore, shouldn’t God’s people make sure that those who minister to the church are also provided for? It was a well-known principle called a fortiori that rabbis often employed, also known as the argument from the lesser to the greater. Paul, having been a Pharisee, would certainly have been accustomed to using such kinds of logic in his arguments.
What may be easy for us to overlook, though, is what the original passage in Deuteronomy had in mind. I have to admit that after three years of seminary training and years of ministry involving teaching and preaching, I did not know what this passage was referring to. So I took the opportunity to consult my commentaries, including one written by Jewish scholars familiar with the Talmud (the Jewish commentary on the Torah).
It’s pretty simple actually. When farmers in the ancient Near East threshed grain, they would employ the help of an ox who would trample on the grain, thereby separating the wheat and the chaff. The chaff would blow away, but the grain would remain. You’ve heard this story before, most likely. Here is the new part - when the ox grew hungry, it would sometimes eat the grain that had fallen to the ground to satisfy its hunger while treading. Farmers were not to restrain the oxen from eating the grain, according to the law. One could imagine a farmer, especially during lean times, getting the idea of muzzling his oxen in order to “beef up” the harvest (sorry for the pun).
What struck me about this passage, and several others in the Old Testament, was that in the midst of God’s law, our Lord provides for the created order by forbidding human beings from depriving God’s creatures the basic necessities of life.
Another passage that similarly caught my eye was Deuteronomy 22:6-7: “If you come across a bird’s nest beside the road, either in a tree or on the ground, and the mother is sitting on the young or on the eggs, do not take the mother with the young. You may take the young, but be sure to let the mother go, so that it may go well with you and you may have a long life.” There are many questions that might pop up in your mind after reading this passage, but what is very clear is that God cares for his creation and he wants us to be good stewards of his created order. This is not a political agenda. It is God’s word.
The JPS Bible Commentary on Deuteronomy explains this passage by saying that to Abravanel, a 15th century Jewish scholar, “…the promise of a long life signals an additional aim of the law, conservation of natural resources: releasing the mother enables her to produce more offspring in the future and thus helps maintain the supply of food needed by humans. In a similar vein, Sefer Ha-Ḥinnukh holds that the aim of the law is to teach that God does not want any species to become extinct.” These are reasons why we need to be careful not to allow the current debates in our political system to dominate how we understand God’s word and his mandates.
There must be a balance between being a good steward of our environment and realizing that humanity is the crowning accomplishment of God’s creation. No other part of the created order is made in the image of God in the same way that humanity is (Gen 1:27). Other religions and belief systems often get it wrong by elevating the created order to an equal or greater position than humanity, but this is not God’s design. Humans were to be the caregivers of God’s creation and were to rule benevolently over all of creation. Sin has marred that because man is totally depraved. Apart from Christ, humanity no longer lives for God’s glory, but rather in rebellion, living for self-glory and pleasure.
So, how can I be a good steward of God’s environment here in China? First of all, I can be a good example. In a very simple way I can display a caring manner. Simple things like riding public transportation, or even a bike as often as possible, and not throwing trash on the ground are small steps. As a Caucasian foreigner, I get a lot of attention and so I need to make sure I am displaying God’s image as best as I can. In the end, it is about the question, “How can we show God’s care and goodness in all of the areas he would call us to?”
Secondly, I can be open to talking with my Chinese friends, as well as my children, about why God cares about all of his creation. Recently one of our local churches hosted a forum that highlighted issues of conscience. Over three hundred people attended from more than twenty provinces in China. Afterwards I talked with one of the participants. She was so encouraged to see intelligent Christians having a thoughtful and healthy debate about things that Christians encounter on a daily basis. She works for an NGO in China that deals with environmental issues and she said that Buddhists seem to be the only ones who are doing anything about environmental issues in China. She hoped that in the future more Christians would be thoughtful participants in addressing environmental concerns.
This generation of Chinese Christians cares about the society they live in and the ethical implications of our decisions in business, education, and politics. Nonetheless, Chinese by nature are fiercely pragmatic. That pragmatism can manifest itself in shortsighted decisions that bring about long-term disaster. Thoughtful Christians in this generation have the opportunity to address such problems and live as salt and light by showing non-believers the difference the gospel makes in the way we think and live.
The conclusion to all of this, however, is not a simple message about how to protect the environment, but rather how to really embrace the whole counsel of God, meaning the entirety of his word. Culture can condition us to focus on certain areas of God’s revelation, while other parts go neglected. I can see this principle at work much more clearly now that I have lived outside of my home culture of America. Politics and culture are not inherently bad or evil, but we ought not to allow these things to blind us toward understanding God’s truth in his word. Human nature is susceptible to this and we need to be diligent to swim against that tide. I am offering one area that may challenge many of us to think twice.
Sa Zhong Zi (meaning “sow seeds”) is the pseudonym for an American living in China assisting with the support and strengthening of the Chinese house church.