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Genesis 1:11-13 portrays the emergence of plants as the first form of life on our living planet.
“Then God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening and there was morning, the third day” (NRSVUE).
It is important to ponder this. In this account, plants emerge before even the sun, moon and stars are created. Ignore for a moment the impossibility of plants without sunlight. Simply be aware of the priority of plant life asserted in this ordering of the events of creation. Animal life and human life all depend on plant life existing first.
To be sure, Genesis does not use the term “life” or “living” (“nephesh” in Hebrew) to describe plant life as it does to describe animal and human life. This does not mean it was not understood to be alive, however. “Nephesh” refers to that which can breathe and move about, and while we know plants do respire, they do not (usually) move substantially from where they are fastened to the earth, to rivers or seabeds, or to other plants. Even without breath or movement in the ways animals and humans have them, plants are essential to all life on this planet.
Genesis goes on to describe part of why plants are essential. At the conclusion of the sixth day, Genesis 1:29-30 goes on to say,
“See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the air and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food” (NRSVUE).
Plants are for food. They exist to help sustain all other living beings, animal and human alike.
We must, therefore, ensure they are cared for, in all their diversity, not only for our sake, but for the sake of our animal neighbors on this planet as well.
While official United Methodist statements about plant life are few, they reflect the awareness of our need to care for them as co-dwellers of our living world. In the preamble to the Social Principles on the Natural World (Book of Discipline Paragraph 160.I), we read:
“… plants … are to be valued and conserved because they are God’s creation and not solely because they are useful to human beings. God has granted us stewardship of creation. We should meet these stewardship duties through acts of loving care and respect.”
In Paragraph 160.I.A, the Social Principles continue:
“We call for the preservation of old-growth forests and other irreplaceable natural treasures, as well as preservation of endangered plant species. We support measures designed to maintain and restore natural ecosystems. We support policies that develop alternatives to chemicals used for growing, processing, and preserving food, and we strongly urge adequate research into their effects upon God’s creation prior to utilization.”
This commitment calls United Methodists to a proactive rather than a reactive approach to caring and working for the good of plant life, as part of those ecosystems, everywhere on earth. It is not enough to rescue endangered plant species or the old-growth forests that human harvesting endangers. Maintaining natural ecosystems means we seek to understand our link and the link of all other life-forms with the ecosystems of our living world and take actions that sustain those systems, including the plant life in them.
This core commitment to maintaining natural ecosystems also drives United Methodists to be skeptical and call for great care when using genetic technology to modify plants and animals. The Social Principle on Genetic Technology (Paragraph 162.III.O) expresses both our skepticism and our care:
“The risks of genetic technology that can hardly be calculated when breeding animals and plants and the negative ecological and social impacts on agriculture make the use of this technology doubtful. We approve modern methods of breeding that respect the existence of the natural borders of species.”
Recognizing that sustaining ecosystems, including plant life, is about sustaining all life, United Methodists also reject all attempts of human greed to make any part of those ecosystems proprietary, whether under patents or other claims of intellectual property. United Methodists join with people “worldwide … challenging the privatization of commonly held resources such as native seeds and plants under intellectual property rules established under international financial organizations such as the World Trade Organization” (Resolution 4058, “Privatization”).
The United Methodist Church also calls the U.S. military and others to account for actions that disregard and destroy plant life and with generational effects. In Resolution 6058, “U.S. Policy in Vieques,” addressing the impact of military activity on the Caribbean island, we state:
“One of the effects of 60 years of bombing has been the degradation, and in some cases destruction, of Vieques’ delicate ecosystems. Hundreds of species of plants and animals have been killed as a result of the direct impact of projectiles during military practices.”
While noting that United Methodist advocacy was part of what led to the end of these military exercises in 2003, and celebrating that outcome, United Methodists continue to call for justice for the sake of the people and the ecosystems, including the plant life, both on land and in the sea. The primary means of removing unexploded ordnance has been to explode it, only prolonging the damage being done across all ecosystems, including the plants at the base of those systems and the food supply.
Despite few references to plant life in United Methodist official statements, those we have extend widely. As individuals, we are called to interact with, understand, respect and work for the good of our neighbor plant life. As a church, we call ourselves and others to care for every ecosystem, all the time, including plants. And we call on businesses, nations and international bodies to account for actions that damage plant life and to act to reverse that damage, so that our living world may thrive.
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