Creation Spirituality: Inheritors of the Land
By Rev. Dr. Louise Westfall
Genesis 3:17-19, 12:1-3
We are stardust. Yes. And we are soil of earth. We are “adam” — the human being God created from the “adamah” – the dust of the ground, into which God breathed the breath of life. Perhaps there is no definition of humanity which gets to the heart of both our promise and problem more precisely than our identity as divine dirt. So it’s appropriate that during our summer focus on creation spirituality we explore these humble origins (by the way – “humble” and “humility” come from the same root as “humus,” the top soil covering our planet). Despite the “ground” of our being, our relationship to the land is complicated.
For example, the consequences of the first humans’ rebellion extended to the land. In the Genesis account of the first sin and its punishment, God says to Adam, Because you have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust and to dust you shall return. [Genesis 3:17-19]
On the other hand, “land” figures prominently into the covenant God established with the patriarch of Judeo-Christian faith. Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, so that you will be a blessing … in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed … I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now a refugee, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God. [Genesis 12:1-3, 17:8] The gift of land was an integral part of God’s relationship to the people and their spiritual descendants (no mention is made of displacing the Canaanite people already in residence there, or the promises God made to the branch of Abraham’s family through his son Ishmael, father to Palestinian peoples). The shadowy underbelly in the good gift of land is the disputes arising from it, producing violence and war globally, hurt and division in families and among neighbors.
The land as source of blessing, sustenance, and community. It’s not surprising then that God also directed specific care for the land. Every seventh year, the land was to lie fallow. No planting, no tending — it was to be a season of complete rest. Parallel to that was the concept of jubilee; in the fiftieth year the people were to return to their ancestral land which could never be sold in perpetuity, because God is the owner, and we are tenants and stewards. Significantly, even the blessing of land was not for the covenant people’s exclusive benefit. God also outlined what may be the first example of a social safety net: And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the refugee: I am the LORD your God. [Leviticus 23:22]
How very far we have traveled from Eden! How far, even from an agrarian culture deeply connected to the seasons and cycles of nature. More of us live in urban areas than at any time in history. Family farms have been sold to big agri-business, which has developed large-scale farming operations, fencerow to fencerow, that efficiently produce crops heavily doused with chemical pesticides. Rainforest destruction in South America has resulted in the extinction of scores of species. Previously protected public lands are being explored for potential oil and gas production. The impact of land degradation is borne most often on the backs of the poor. In an example close to home, think of the proposed expansion of Interstate-70 through the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods. These predominantly Latino communities already suffer higher rates of cancer, heart disease, and asthma than other Denver areas, due in part to raised air pollution levels from increased traffic since the highway was built in the 1960s. Just as it was in biblical times, earth care is a justice concern, part of the sacred calling of the people of God. We are inheritors of the land.
Too often, I think, our responsibilities to the earth have been pitted against economic development, as if advocating for one obliterates the other. But like many of the issues dividing our nation these days, such distinction is unnecessary and in fact erodes the middle ground beneficial to both. It’s naïve to imagine a return to the Garden of Eden, to live pristinely on the land. But it is the height of cynicism and greed for economic interests to dominate every decision and policy. We have a common stake in stewardship of the one planet we share.
I’m sure my tenth-grade Sunday school teacher was just following the curriculum when she suggested that we reduce our consumption of meat because the production of grain fed to most livestock is fossil fuel-intensive and their waste emits methane, a potent greenhouse gas. But the teacher happened to be my mother, married to my father, the pastor of the church in the heart of beef-raising country in Northeast Colorado. My dad got the call on Sunday afternoon from the rancher pointing out in no uncertain terms that his salary was paid by those beef producers. He had a point, and if my mother was muffled, she nonetheless continued to prepare meatless meals for our family once a week, without fail.
One good example of marrying earth care and economic interest is reflected in the practices of the Presbyterian Foundation, the agency of the Presbyterian Church (USA) which cultivates and manages financial resources of individuals and congregations to further Christ’s mission. Last year, for example, they distributed close to 60 million dollars to local and global ministries. As a former trustee of the Foundation, I am impressed with the ways they’ve used sound investment strategies to seek solutions to climate change. They’ve invested in renewable energy sources. They’ve funded low-interest loans to churches to improve energy efficiency of their buildings. They’ve developed fossil-free investment portfolios for individuals and congregations. Their mission-driven vision is also good business!
To call Wendell Berry a Kentucky farmer is correct, and his own preferred self-description. But he is also an award-winning poet, novelist, essayist, environmental activist and Christian; someone who, as he puts it, “takes the Gospel seriously.” His writings plead for sustainable agriculture, appropriate technologies, and strengthening the health of rural communities. We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world [he has written]. We have been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption, that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and learn what is good for it.
[Wendell Berry, The Long-Legged House]
What if our commitment to stewardship of the earth began with intention to reconnect with this ground of our very being? To get our hands dirty in soil, to know that … compost happens, and it can be good. To inspire our souls by walking the land. Gardeners know this joy. But so can we all, by daily recognition of our links to the land. Wendell Berry again offers guidance:
Until we understand what the land is, we are at odds with everything we touch. And to come to that understanding it is necessary, even now, to leave the regions of our conquest – the cleared fields, the towns and cities, the highways – and re-enter the woods. For only there can we encounter the silence and the darkness of our own absence. Only in this silence and darkness can we recover the sense of the world’s longevity, of its ability to thrive without us, of our inferiority to it and our dependence on it. Perhaps then, having heard that silence and seen that darkness, we will grow humble before the place and begin to take it in – to learn from it what it is … That is, we must reenter the silence and the darkness, and be born again.
[Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays]
To be born again is of course a spiritual journey that involves the whole person, not just the mind. That’s why I invited you to pick a sprig of rosemary as you entered worship this morning. Rosemary, herbal product of the earth, has long been associated with remembrance. Friends, inhale its fragrance deeply as a reminder. Remember who you are. Remember what you are. And remember Whose you are. Thanks be to God!