The call to a deeper connection with nature was, for me, something new and unprecedented. For most of my life, I have pursued what many would consider to be “social justice” or what my religious tradition calls “the works of mercy.” My paradigm for taking action in the past has been centered firmly on humanity. I have worked with the homeless, with the poor, and with immigrants. I have found my solidarity with those who are marginalized by the dominant society and culture, and much of my work has been about understanding just what concrete forms that solidarity might take. In turn, I have found that my spirituality is inevitably colored by this view from “the bottom.”
In the last few years, however, I’ve gotten more involved with causes and movements that put a strong emphasis on justice from a whole-earth perspective. This means seeking connection, solidarity and justice not just for the marginalized humans of the world, but with all living things and with the very earth itself. Surprisingly enough, this has not required much of a theological shift for me. In fact, this movement seems like the fulfillment of a way of seeing that begins by looking at what society deems useless, and finding transcendence and connection to the eternal in the mundane and physical. If any Christians find this appalling, I would suggest they examine their own practice of the Eucharist as a starting point.
It’s no secret that our society finds little to no value in the elemental “stuff” of nature, beyond what economic value it can provide. The idea that the earth can contain any form of transcendence is denied outright, or at best dismissed as mere emotion or sentimentality that cannot compete with the universal laws of endless growth and expansion. It’s not much of a stretch to move from the disregard of the value of nature to the disregard of human value – especially those whose contributions to the almighty economic engine are minimal. In the meritocracy of utility, only those things (human or otherwise) that provide maximum gain are given esteem, while the rest are paved over and shoved to the side.
We see this clearly in modern America with the treatment of native protesters to the Dakota Access pipeline. The shockingly heavy-handed response of the government to these protesters, with military-level displays of force from law enforcement personnel, is no surprise when considering the statement ultimately being made by the native people. They are saying, in effect, that the earth has value beyond the resources that can be extracted from it. They are daring to suggest that it might be better to leave the sacred ground to its sacredness, and to trust in the very benevolence of the earth itself to provide as it always has. To the extractive worldview, this way of thinking is anathema, beyond comprehension. It threatens the very foundations of utilitarian society and must be stamped out with all of the violence that the state can bring to bear.
Most everyone knows the words of Jesus in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” I fear that to a Western, rationalist worldview these words mean very little. We don’t much value the meek, and we only value the earth as much as we can take from it. But I think that the words here call our attention to the very real connection between “the least of these” and the very earth that we stand on. Maybe these meek – these native peoples, these poor and oppressed everywhere – remind us how closely our survival really depends upon the stuff of nature, the simple things that the earth provides if we pay attention and learn to understand it. The meek are not filled up with the illusion that more industry and more extraction will make us great and insulate us from suffering and want. They are no strangers to suffering and want, but they have seen also that the earth, their inheritance, will indeed provide if left to pursue its course and treated with the respect that its sacredness requires.
I have read the passionate pleas of many native folks over the last few weeks, and can understand the despair and frustration that they express. I have read accusations that Americans of European descent, like myself, are a people without roots in the land, and I agree. While the situation in North Dakota is certainly about national sovereignty and broken treaties, it is also about a fundamental collision of worldviews. If the land is not sacred to us, what is to stop us from draining it dry? If we don’t believe that the land itself has a transcendent value, I have to wonder how we will ever reach a point of agreement and an end to the conflict. Now is the time to recognize the worldviews that drive us, to turn to the land and seek to put down those roots, and to join with those who know its story and listen and stand with them.