“You’ve got to think of people first,” he said in defense of yet another blatant assault on the environment in the name of creature comforts.
I was stunned to hear this cynical, reductive, and (self) destructive philosophy from an old friend who identified himself as a Christian and who was proud of his documented Native ancestry.
To him, the collapse of ecosystems, weather-related crop failures, catastrophes, and unprecedented species extinctions were justified, if not necessary, sacrifices for even further human use, profit, and exploitation.
Thinking of “people first” strikes me as the ultimate primal state of humanity. Who among us does not consider their own status, safety, or condition before anyone — or anything — else? What else has been the precursor to every war, every empire’s collapse, every relationship implosion?
The first, and probably most difficult, transition for every infant (and many adults) is to acknowledge the innate value and necessity of those outside of and beyond ourselves. This conversation reminded me of one of the many forgotten Christian acronyms – JOY: Jesus, Others, Yourself. This abbreviation is way to keep in mind not only the priorities a believer should embrace, but which draws the person of faith ever deeper and stronger into an ever-renewing faith. And JOY is what makes that faith ever more solid and appealing, if not irresistible.
This is the Good News the world needs. Not more comforts, conveniences, and distractions, but more integrity, humility, sacrifice, and compassion.
“People first” becomes all too easily “my people first,” and eventually “me first.” This philosophy, one could argue, led Adam and Eve to pick that forbidden fruit.
When every species — from salmon to bees, to elephants and butterflies — only acts as maw for the fury and appetites of people, and every landscape from the Everglades, to the Amazon, to glaciers suffers at our hands, we have clearly lost our way when it comes to the Genesis mandate to care for creation.
In Genesis, people are clearly NOT the first thing God “thinks” of. People are created on the sixth day, and they are commanded to “think” about — and care for — the rest of creation. It was their failure to put the needs of creation ahead of their own that led them to rationalize the choice that led to the Fall.
Our divine calling is nothing less than the restoration of our original place in God’s creation. Nothing is more revolutionary or healing or essential or available to each one of us.
But if your intention is to justify every act of predation, violence, exploitation, dehumanization, slavery, abuse, and destruction, I can think of no better philosophy than “think of people first” to prioritize one’s people, one’s needs, one’s impulses, one’s fantasies and one’s appetites.
However, our primary biblical mandate is to care for creation and by doing so, honoring our Creator. Our core identity, according to Genesis, is to care for and participate in creation. The created world should be improved by our hand upon it.
We violate God’s command, our own place in creation, and our relationship with every living thing when we abandon the divine order and put our own will above God’s.
But I do understand the appeal of “think of people first.” It has that irresistible hiss of Eden’s slithery tempter as he makes the argument that will win every time: “Do it for yourself. You deserve it. You can be like God. You are better than those people.”
What could be more attractive, even like heaven, to some than conquest without consequences, ravaging and defiling without judgment, murdering and assaulting with eternal impunity? It’s heaven for some and hell for many.
Yet, no philosophy will make us more miserable, create more toxic relationships, and leave us ever more dissatisfied — no matter how many toys or conquests we acquire.
Making ourselves the center and purpose of God’s creation is humanity’s favorite and most compelling heresy. Nothing else makes us smaller, emptier, more destructive, and more worthy of our own destruction — and more eager to work for it.
Human arrogance and self-destruction defines our history. But honoring God’s calling on our lives and putting God and all of creation ahead of our own fantasies of power and control, defines our fullest destiny.
Like the most foolish of children, we have exchanged our enduring glory for vanity and empty promises. You’d think we would have learned by now. But no, that first temptation still sings for us.
“My will be done” is the slogan of the rapist, the bully, the molester, the despot, and the trafficker. Its plural form, “Our will be done,” is the rallying cry of the imperial invader, state-sanctioned murderer, and colonizer.
But “Thy will be done” is the theme of those who restore, protect, and lift up others. The ones who seek out the broken — not to exploit, but to heal. And in that healing and restoration, find their own.