Ambrose, mentor to Augustine, puts the question.
His was another audience and time but seventeen centuries later the
question still serves us well.
Why do the injuries of
nature delight you? The world has been created for all, while you
rich are trying to keep it for yourselves. Not merely the
possession of the earth, but the very sky, air and the sea are
claimed for the use of the rich few…Nor from your own do you
bestow on the poor man, but you make return from what is his. For
what has been given as common for the use of all, you appropriate
for yourself alone. The earth belongs to all, not to the
 Augustine shared his teacher's suspicions of the imperial
rich and their treatment of earth. In a well-known City
of God passage on the bitter experience of empires without
justice, he asks rhetorically, "Remove justice, and what are
kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale?" Augustine
goes on to note that the "ranks of the demoralized" themselves are
the source of "many recruits" who in turn acquire territory,
capture cities, and subdue peoples for their leaders. The
title of "kingdom" is then "conferred on it in the eyes of the
world." The bishop adds a caveat: the title of "kingdom" is
conferred "not by the renouncing of aggression but by the
attainment of impunity."2 He then borrows
an exchange from Cicero to clinch his own point.
For it was a witty and a
truthful rejoinder which was given by a captured pirate to
Alexander the Great. The king asked the fellow, 'What is your
idea, in infesting the sea?' And the pirate answered, with
uninhibited insolence, 'The same as yours, in infesting the
earth! But because I do it with a tiny craft, I'm called a
pirate; because you have a mighty navy, you're called an
 "Why do the injuries of nature delight you?" is the question
for these pages. Or, using Augustine, Why do you "infest the
earth?" There are not the same questions as that of Ishmael
in Daniel Quinn's book. But they are close enough to frame
the discussion. In Quinn's fanciful account, a gorilla,
Ishmael, becomes teacher to a disillusioned young man whose hopes
for a transformed world have all but expired. The young man
is as demoralized by injustice and unhappiness as the citizens in
Augustine's description of rich and poor in empires shorn of
justice. Ishmael initiates an exchange with the young
Ishmael thought for a
moment. "Among the people of your culture, which want to
destroy the world?"
"Which want to destroy it? As far as I know, no one
specifically wants to destroy the world."
"And yet you do destroy it, each of you. Each of you
contributes daily to the destruction of the world."
"Yes, that's so."
"Why don't you stop?"4
 "Why do the injuries of nature delight you?"
(Ambrose) "Why don't you stop?" (Ishmael) Either way
the question probes deeply, given the fact we have more than
sufficient sound scientific knowledge that we are wreaking havoc on
innumerable lives and their habitats. We have become imperial
unCreators in the Community of Life, terminators who deal death to
birth itself. The sixth great wave of extinction, and the
first at human hands, happens as we speak.
 The reason is not shrouded in mystery. No giant meteor
has struck recently, no ultra-dramatic climate change cycle has
completed its millennial round, no Krakatoa5 explosion from middle
earth has blotted out both sun and life. Species now
disappear for other reasons: encroaching human habitat and the
toxic consequences of human industry.
 To put the matter theologically: if the genocide of creatures,
witting or unwitting, isn't sin, what on earth
qualifies? If this isn't rancid offense to nostrils of
the Triune God, what is? "I believe God has created me,
together with all creatures,"6 Luther says in both the Small
and Large Catechisms. Faith itself is "a living, busy, active
mighty thing" that renders us "glad and bold and happy in dealing
with God and with all creatures." Killing
nativity itself must count somewhere as worthy of repentance.
To say the least, it plainly violates the vow made weekly to
"dedicate our lives to the care and redemption of all that you
[God] have made."7
 So why don't we stop?
 We don't stop because we don't consider this genocide
"sin." Or so it seems, to judge from all manner of
 My favorite stems from a comment of Alphonse the Wise, King of
Castile and Lyon (1221-84): "If the Lord Almighty had consulted me
before embarking on the Creation, I'd have recommended something
simpler." "Simpler" we did not get. Instead, creation
is a riot of life infinite in all directions. "The whole
creation is one lunatic fringe," writes Annie Dillard, who then
unknowingly echoes Alphonse. "If creation had been left up to
me, I'm sure I wouldn't have had the imagination or courage to do
more than shape a single, reasonably sized atom, smooth as a
snowball, and let it go at that."8
 While we didn't create a single, reasonably sized atom, and
let it go at that, we humans did simplify. We did so, and do
so, mightily. "Something simpler" is in fact the flow of the
traffic in the human tale since the advent of settled society
itself (the Neolithic Revolutions). For the last dozen
millennia Homo sapiens have been relentless about cutting
and pasting biodiverse and geodiverse nature to fit the purposes of
society; or, more precisely, to fit the purposes of the more
powerful forces in stratified societies. Agriculture, and
especially industrial agriculture; industry, and especially mass
production industry; and human settlement, especially city living,
change plant and animal life and transform eco-systems and
landscapes by rendering more as less so that less might be
 This tenacious habit of simplifying habitat identifies a major
cause of the sixth great period of extinction. Yet even when
this issues in the stark reality James Martin-Schramm and Robert
Stivers open with in Christian Environmental Ethics, we
don't call it sin. "Until recently the great ecological systems of
the earth were a problem for human beings," they write. "Now
the reverse is true."9 Nor do we stop,
even though this "problem" now translates as a vast unplanned and
uncontrolled planetary experiment.
 Another kind of explanation for our "delight" of injuring
nature follows trails in moral philosophy. These track the
fate of human subjectivity and agency in recent centuries.
The outcome for ethics-who has moral standing and on what terms-can
be distilled to a sentence: all God's creatures other than humans
are bereft of moral citizenship. This is, to be sure, no
longer argued in the crass terms of the stark anthropocentrism and
mechanistic cosmology of an earlier day when Bacon, Newton, Kant,
Locke, and Descartes took no prisoners and offered no
apologies. Ours is something
else-"eco-modernity."10 That is, we are
keenly aware that humans belong to a common, complex,
interdependent creation marked by waves of biological evolution and
vast cosmic processes ages in the making. Yet despite this
shift from the Enlightenment's mechanistic world to the ecologist's
and cosmologist's metabolic one, the moral universe remains
strangely unchanged. Human beings remain the decisive agents
who are the sole judges of their actions, without reference to any
court of appeal beyond them, and in keeping with ends they desire
and choose. All the real action still runs on modernity's
same old axis. Human mind and agent, powered by sophisticated
science and technology, is laid out on one end, with complex,
living nature construed as information and resources laid out in
waiting on the other. This, for all practical
purposes, is the death of nature in this moral universe.
But that doesn't seem to register with us. Or, if it does, it
doesn't seem to matter. We are not about to name such free
and exhilarating moral agency "sin" or let our imperial
subjectivity and sovereignty be taken down a notch or
two. Instead we will call it "stewardship," with
attendant "responsibility." Alas, it expresses the kind of
creative beings we are, and we cannot do much about that except
rule more wisely.
 A third reason the mass death of creatures is not sin falls
closer to home for serious Lutherans. The great Protestant
insights, those timely elaborations on the insights of Ambrose and
Augustine, are not carried to their own logical conclusions.
It's as though we amputated a lobe of our own brain. Luther's
depiction of sin as cor curvatum in se is about the
human heart, not only the pope's or some random
individual's. His is, in other words, a species
analysis. So is Calvin's: the center of life in God is
twisted in such a way by humans that our hearts carry on a thriving
business in self-serving idol-making. Sin here is to affirm
oneself and one's confreres, but not "the other," as a value, and
to acknowledge others only in relation to oneself. "We" are
ranged over against the indiscriminate, objective "they," with
norm-making firmly in the hands of the collective "we." In
some centuries this has meant normative "whiteness" as the basis
for judging other "races;" or European and neo-European society as
the basis for judging other civilizations; or Christianity as the
measure of true religion, male status as decisive for female,
heterosexual for homosexual, etc.
 Protestants have elaborated this arrogance as "pride" in a
dazzling display of subtle forms, including humility.
Reinhold Niebuhr's acute analysis of sin as overweening individual,
social, moral, and religious pride remains worthy of daily
attention.11 Like Luther and
Calvin, Niebuhr, too, meant pan-human nature, not simply
the eccentricities of the particular neighbor we don't like.
Yet we Protestants have consistently failed to draw the logical
conclusion and provide the needed analysis; namely, the
elaboration of pan-human sin as species pride. The "we"
that sins is set over against a "they" that is sinned against, but
the sinned against goes unrecognized as holding any moral claims
upon us (all those "creatures" of Luther's catechisms).
Indeed, we don't even conceive ourselves in species' terms, with
one exception: we as a species are distinctive, set apart and
over. We thus end up in a very odd place morally,
theologically, and in daily practice: a contracting earth is
jeopardized by its acclaimed stewards who don't even wince at the
reality that they have become its unCreators. The
Reformation's profound analysis of sin simply falls silent about
our species being and cumulative human threats to the Community of
Life. Some theo-ethical black hole evidently ate it.
Some unseen void swallowed it whole. A lobe has gone
 But back to Ambrose and Augustine, and on to Niebuhr.
Sin as extinction is more complicated than wayward species pride
expressed in some smooth pan-human way. These theologians
would all have recognized the truth in C. S. Lewis's comment that
what we call human power over nature is actually the power
exercised by some people over others. Species pride is real,
and the human heart is as the Psalmist called it-deceitful above
all things. But the sinful consequences of species pride
always play out in ways that are coupled with economic, social, and
cultural privilege on the part of some peoples over others.
All arrogance is not equal.
 In a word, the crisis of nature is a crisis of justice.
If you want to know why the injuries of nature continue to delight
in a globalized world, follow the money. Track the powers of
privilege and you will understand why we don't just say no and
stop. "The earth belongs to all, not to the rich," to recall
the complaint of Ambrose.
 Not that this deadly simplification of the biological and
geophysical world is itself simple, from a moral point of
view. Character assassination of the affluent offers nothing
at all in the way of good analysis or proper response, since
malevolent character and personal intention has relatively little
to do with, say, accelerated climate change and the death of coral
reels and their nurseries. It isn't malice of forethought or
greed as a disposition that has brought ocean fisheries to the
point of collapse, anymore than environmental racism is the
vocation of urban rednecks. Virtue and vice as character
ethics certainly won't illumine Augustine's observation that the
ranks of the demoralized themselves supply the recruits for taking
territory and unhappy imperious living. The play of privilege
in the worlds it constructs brick-by-brick, law-by-law, and
story-by-story encompasses far more than the moralistic "we's" and
"they's" we use to negotiate those worlds and locate our
enemies. The fact is that in a humanly-dominated biosphere,
"they" don't live here anymore. It's only "we," in varied and
often dangerous combinations.
 To close. "The earth belongs to all." Ambrose's basic
contention, present from Christianity's beginning, is certainly no
less true for our crowded world than one more generous by
nature. But it is true with equal force that "all belongs to
the earth." This is our singular home, judging from all
recent science. Perhaps when our moral emotions and religious
convictions grasp both sides of this core belonging-the earth
belongs to all and we all belong to earth-we will rightly name
extinction "sin" and begin to take our eucharistic vow
Journal of Lutheran Ethics (JLE)
Volume 3, Issue 9
1 De Nabuthe Jezraelita 3, 11, but cited here from
Rosemary Ruether, "Sisters of Earth: Religious women and ecological
spirituality," The WITNESS, May, 2000: 14-15.
2 This is a succinct anticipation of Max Weber on the
modern nation-state. Its distinguishing mark is not the
renunciation of violence but legal control of it.
3 Augustine cites as the source of this exchange, Cicero,
De Rep., 3, 14, 24. The full passage is from Augustine's The City
of God, Book IV, Chp. 5, Section 4.
4 Daniel Quinn, Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and
Spirit (New York: Bantam Books, 1992), 25.
5 The largest volcanic explosion in modern times, in
6 See Luther's exposition of the First Article of the
Creed in the Small and Large Catechism. In the exposition in the
Large Catechism, Luther includes a passage not distant from that of
Ambrose and Augustine on the imperious rich: "For if we really
believed it [that we are a creature of God] with our whole heart,
we would also act accordingly, and not stalk about proudly, act
defiantly, and boast as though we had life, riches, power, and
honor, etc., of ourselves, so that others must fear and serve
us…" The citations on the nature of faith are from Luther's
"Preface to the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans, " in Luther's
Works, 35: 370-371. The emphasis given "all creatures" is mine.
7 Holy Communion: Setting One, Lutheran Book of Worship
(Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1979), 68.
8 Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: Harper
Perennial Classic, 1998), 146.
9 James B. Martin-Schramm and Robert L. Stivers, Christian
Environmental Ethics: A Case Method Approach (Maryknoll: Orbis
Books, 2003), Chp. 1, p. 9.
10 The term is Aiden Davison's in his Technology and the
Contested Meanings of Sustainability (Albany: SUNY Press,
11 This is a recurring discussion in Niebuhr but
concentrated analysis is most prominent in Volume II of Nature and
Destiny of Man (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1943). See
especially the chapter entitled "The Kingdom of God and the
Struggle for Justice."