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?”


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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.

 

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Further Reading

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Qingdao: How to Pray
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Qingdao: Locals and Outsiders
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Qingdao: Good Soil for the Gospel
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LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA

With rising pressure and persecution in China, there are two challenges imperative for church leaders. The first challenge is for current leaders to love Christ above all else, and not to stray into legalism or love of the world. The second challenge is to raise up the next generation of leaders, who will humbly model Jesus even if current leaders are arrested.

WILL YOU JOIN US IN PRAYING FOR LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA? PRAY FOR:

  1. Current leaders to grow in their daily walks with Christ
  2. Current leaders to shepherd and raise up new leaders
  3. New leaders who love Christ and will model him to the world
  4. New leaders to love and care for the church

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ABOUT LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT

About Shenyang

Shenyang is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Liaoning Province. It is known for its rich history and cultural heritage, including the Shenyang Imperial Palace, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Shenyang is also a hub for China’s heavy industry, with companies such as the China First Automobile Group and the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation having their headquarters in the city.

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About Qingdao

Qingdao is a city located in eastern China and is famous for its beaches, beer, and seafood. The city is home to several landmarks, including the Zhanqiao Pier and the Badaguan Scenic Area. Qingdao is also a major port and has a thriving economy, with industries such as electronics, petrochemicals, and machinery.

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About Xiamen

Xiamen is a city located in southeastern China and is a popular tourist destination known for its beautiful coastal scenery, including Gulangyu Island, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is also a hub for China’s high-tech industry, with companies such as Huawei and ZTE having research and development centers in Xiamen.

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About Chongqing

Chongqing is a city located in southwestern China and is a major economic center in the region. The city is known for its spicy cuisine, especially its hot pot dishes, and is also famous for the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric dam. Chongqing is also home to several historic sites, including the Dazu Rock Carvings, which are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

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About Nanjing

Nanjing is a city located in eastern China and is the capital of Jiangsu Province. It is one of China’s ancient capitals and has a rich cultural history, including the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, the Nanjing City Wall, and the Confucius Temple. Nanjing is also a modern city with a thriving economy and is home to several universities, including Nanjing University and Southeast University.

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About Changchun

Changchun is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Jilin Province. It is known for its rich cultural heritage and is home to several historical landmarks such as the Puppet Emperor’s Palace and the Jingyuetan National Forest Park. Changchun is also a hub for China’s automotive industry, with several major automobile manufacturers having their headquarters in the city.

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About Guangzhou

Guangzhou, also known as Canton, is a city located in southern China and is the capital of Guangdong Province. It is one of the country’s largest and most prosperous cities, serving as a major transportation and trading hub for the region. Guangzhou is renowned for its modern architecture, including the Canton Tower and the Guangzhou Opera House, as well as its Cantonese cuisine, which is famous for its variety and bold flavors. The city also has a rich history, with landmarks such as the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall, the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, and the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. Additionally, Guangzhou hosts the annual Canton Fair, the largest trade fair in China.

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About Kunming

Kunming is a city located in southwest China and is the capital of Yunnan Province. Known as the “City of Eternal Spring” for its mild climate, Kunming is a popular tourist destination due to its natural beauty and cultural diversity. The city is home to several scenic spots, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Stone Forest, Dian Lake, and the Western Hills. Kunming is also famous for its unique cuisine, which features a mix of Han, Yi, and Bai ethnic flavors. The city has a rich cultural history, with ancient temples and shrines like the Yuantong Temple and the Golden Temple, and it’s also a hub for Yunnan’s ethnic minority cultures, such as the Yi and Bai peoples.

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About Shenzhen

Shenzhen is a city located in southeastern China and is one of the country’s fastest-growing metropolises. The city is renowned for its thriving tech industry, with companies such as Huawei, Tencent, and DJI having their headquarters in Shenzhen. The city also has a vibrant cultural scene, with numerous museums, art galleries, and parks. Shenzhen is also known for its modern architecture, such as the Ping An Finance Center and the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center. Despite its modernization, Shenzhen also has a rich history and cultural heritage, with landmarks such as the Dapeng Fortress and the Chiwan Tin Hau Temple.

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About Chengdu

Chengdu is a city located in the southwestern region of China, and the capital of Sichuan province. It has a population of over 18 million people, and it is famous for its spicy Sichuan cuisine, laid-back lifestyle, and its cute and cuddly residents – the giant pandas. Chengdu is home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where visitors can observe these adorable creatures in their natural habitat. The city also boasts a rich cultural heritage, with numerous temples, museums, and historical sites scattered throughout its boundaries. Chengdu is a city of contrasts, with ancient traditions coexisting alongside modern developments, making it an intriguing and fascinating destination for visitors to China. 

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About Beijing

Beijing is the capital city of China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 21 million people. The city has a rich history that spans over 3,000 years, and it has served as the capital of various dynasties throughout China’s history. Beijing is home to some of the most iconic landmarks in China, including the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven. The city is also a hub for political, cultural, and educational activities, with numerous universities and research institutions located within its boundaries. Beijing is renowned for its traditional architecture, rich cuisine, and vibrant cultural scene, making it a must-visit destination for travelers to China.

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About Shanghai

Shanghai is a vibrant and dynamic city located on the eastern coast of China. It is the largest city in China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 24 million people. Shanghai is a global financial hub and a major center for international trade, with a rich history and culture that spans over 1,000 years. The city is famous for its iconic skyline, which features towering skyscrapers such as the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Shanghai Tower. Shanghai is also home to a diverse culinary scene, world-class museums and art galleries, and numerous shopping districts. It is a city that is constantly evolving and reinventing itself, making it a fascinating destination for visitors from around the world.

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