Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of the Sustainability as a Decolonizing Liturgical Practice series. Read Part 1 here.
“I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”
—Greta Thunberg, 16-year old climate activist at the World Economic Forum in Davos
We have each had transcendent experiences of nature. Hiking meandering brown brushstrokes of dirt trails in the Redwood Forest walled by towering trunks of timber like giant pencils growing from the ground. Sights of geological phenomena like the lava red craters of the Grand Canyon or the steel blue rises of the Grand Tetons with bleached white toupees. Maybe like us, you have also been in the midst of preternatural landscapes that could only be matched by our childhood dreams of heaven. In those moments, we take a breath. A sigh of relief. It is as if creation talks to us in its sights and sounds, smells and textures. Creation affects us in its commanding equilibrium, grounding our souls to the rhythms and reverberations of peace. But it’s not the only way it communicates.
As heat waves sweep across the United States. igniting unprecedented numbers of wildfires in California, droughts are similarly increasing all across Africa leading to “severe food insecurities” and producing sweeping viruses snowballing across parts of Asia, as reported by the U.N. Just this past month, the first Icelandic glacier, Okjökull, has been buried in an oceanic funeral; a specter of the reality that rising sea levels will likely displace 2 billion people by 2100. These are just some of the signs of our climate and ecological crisis. Nature indeed talks.
We talked very little about environmentalism in either of our immigrant churches growing up. The faintest echoes of language around a theology of environmentalism or ecological care was nurtured through how we spoke about creation. In our youth group “camping” experiences, we were encouraged to experience creation as consumers by finding stillness and absorbing as much of that essence as we could. We saw creation as a thing that could feed our souls and maximize our growth as a part of the collective. Touching shoulders with evangelicalism offered language for a theology of creation that starts with “dominion” and “subduing” of this thing called creation (Genesis 1:28) and that God called good. Though we don’t believe “dominion” means “dominate” or “subdue” means “subjugate,” Christian empires* of the past have interpreted the idea of being fruitful and multiplying as god, gold and glory.
The early formations of these theological reflections are actually not too different from one another. Both put the individual human in the seat of power, while creation is this powerless matter to be manipulated at will. The language around creation ostensibly constructs an us-them dynamic where no such dynamic exists. We were not created as an us (humanity) and them (creation), but rather as us in succession. But if the rest of creation is them, an incendiary culture of disposability begins to take shape (and clearly already has) — listening to the land when it is subject to our marvel, but waving off our responsibility upon cries of deforestation, droughts, wildfires, and floods. The theology of creation care needs urgently to become a theology of sustainability, biodiversity, and circularity. A theology of creation care is a theology of us.
A Theology of Circularity
The Hebrew concept of shalom is helpful in grounding a theology of circularity. Shalom or salam derives from the same root in all Semitic languages within the narrative of the Middle East and North Africa, denoting wholeness and completeness — without an us and them. According to Rabbi David Zaslow, “in the Hebraic way of thinking, wholeness is the joining together of opposites.” Otherness or disconnection is the original or problem state from which wholeness is produced. Where the Christian framework always emphasized shalom in the binary of God bringing peace to us, the other, through grace, the rabbinic framework imagines shalom as a metavalue that needs to be pursued within created beings. It sees our differences without a compulsive othering. It rejects our disconnectedness and demands for radical empathy to be our modus operandi.
Indigenous folx have understood this intimate interconnectedness and circularity for a long time. In decolonizing our understanding of relationship with the land, it is essential to make space for the owners of the land and their cornucopia of primeval wisdom as well. “All My Relations,” translated in English is the universally used Native American phrase that unlocks a deeper, embodied understanding that we are all connected. “My relations” is all-inclusive; my family is everyone and everything in existence. Indigenous writer Dr. Anita Sanchez says it best:
“The indigenous worldview is that the spirit, the people (human beings), and the earth — all nature and the cosmos — are interconnected. All are my relations, for each is part of an intimately interconnected whole. When I do something that hurts the people, it also hurts the earth and the spirit. When I do something that is caring for the river, then I care for the people, the earth and the spirit.” (Dr. Anita L. Sanchez, ‘Intersection of an Indigenous Worldview and Applied Neurophysiology’)
For the Aboriginal people of Australia, these relations and the knowledge of how we are interconnected is expressed in sacred stories of genesis known as Dreaming or Dreamtime (Source: What is Aboriginal spirituality? – Creative Spirits). In these stories, what comes through from Aboriginal spirituality is that we the people “do not own the land but the land owns us;” it is from where we came and to where we will return. It is impossible to see self without also seeing the land, and vice versa. “The land is our food, our culture, our spirit and identity.” And though it isn’t explicitly emphasized , our biblical texts has similar imagery of our earth origins from dust (See Genesis 3:19, Ecclessiates 3:20, Psalm 103:14). In addition, the Torah and Prophets talk plenty on the sacredness of the land and the circular consequences upon its defilement (Leviticus 18:26,28; Numbers 35-33-34; Jeremiah 12:4,11; Hosea 4:1-3). We and the land are indeed one. In a theology of circularity, all created things are alive, sacred, giving to one another to sustain the life which was given to us.
Divesting as Decolonizing
The indigenous worldviews gives us a glimpse into the grief and violation indigenous citizens deeply feel each day. We can begin to look around our colonized, heavily industrialized, coal-powered, profit-driven world — and ask ourselves, “where can we even begin when there is so much to be undone?” We must urgently see ourselves with the land as a unified whole. We are creation; destruction of our habitat and destruction to ourselves is one and the same.
In many ways, our sundry developed societies were built for the purpose of sustainability. City centers in a free market economy are built for refuge; and food, science, technology, business, culture, and the arts all serve to nurture human societies through many dimensions. Resources can be produced and distributed en masse because a densely packed community creates accessibility, where sparser areas otherwise could not. In a utopia, cities can equally sustain people while also sustaining land and animals interconnectedly. But a framework such as capitalism can quickly turn to the piracy of such common sense instincts. Although capitalism’s emphasis on the free market has historically produced rapid technological growth and innovation — making the access we have today possible — the allure to its pitfalls must be addressed.
Capitalism for the individual asks, “how can I make a profit for myself in this system?” Capitalism that goes awry and spreads its tentacles in a city asks, “how can I make a profit out of this city?” When profit maximization in the hands of the traditionally powerful — let’s say, white men — holds precedent over the sustainability of a city’s citizens and inhabitants, the most vulnerable will always lose. Sociologically speaking, women and children will always lose. Indigenous folx will always lose. Black and brown folx will always lose. The less able will always lose. Natural ecosystems will always lose. We can attempt to endlessly unravel principles, intentions, and systems of a unilateral economy and still never find the circularity our world so desperately needs.
As a reminder, the oil industry continues to ravenously hunt for oil repositories at the cost of home and habitat for indigenous communities and wildlife, displacing many to the point of extinction. And as we know, it carries on its excavations to our oceans and its effects on our coastlines, by way of oil spills that permanently pollute our waters and wreak havoc on marine life. More recently, a spotlight is facing the fast fashion industry with studies in 2017 showing that the sector is responsible for around 1.2 billion tons, or 10%, of global carbon emissions, 20% of industrial water pollution, and calling to account shoddy colonial labor practices that can only be equivocated to modern-day slavery.
Many of us have seen through media reports that just weeks ago the Amazon Rainforest is being lit to inferno at record rates, up from 79% from this time last year, for economic and industrial gain. This is happening everywhere. Most of deforestation is commodity driven, clearing land for agriculture of beef, soy (also to produce food for livestock), palm oil (used often in processed foods and household products), paper, and wood.The World Resources Institute has actually created a helpful Global Forest Watch to track ongoing deforestation globally. These are just some insights into how corporations driven by profit could never be reconciled with sustainability and circularity.
A decolonizing liturgy of sustainability remembers that instinct for circularity en masse is what necessitated cities in the first place. It remembers that there was once a time when profit was not precedent. To be honest, in our current society this liturgy is probably equivalent to activism. To decolonize in hopes of getting back to circularity, we must do all within our power to divest from corporations that prioritize profit over sustainability, while calling for greater regulations on all corporate practices that abuse land and people.
Like any activism, this one comes with its own tensions. In many ways, sustainability has also been marketed as a costly effort. In an economy where many are disenfranchised from accessing wealth, buying mass-produced food, clothing, and commodities that we count as necessities, is the only option. For those living in cities planned around preserving the auto industry, surrendering our cars makes everything inaccessible. For those in need of medical products impossible to acquire without packaging that guarantees sterilization, boycotting plastic is not even a thought to be entertained.
For all of which we cannot divest, there are just as many that we can. Some of us may be able to cut out all single-use products from our lives, replacing it with reusables. Some of us can compost and recycle the hell out of everything we buy. Some of us can say no to a vehicle that runs on gasoline by switching over to alternative transportation such as biking or other means. Some of us can go vegan or move to vegetable-centric diets. Some can plant trees, grow gardens, and source local food. Some can divest from Amazon (the company) for the rest of eternity. Some, maybe many, can divest fast fashion to buy only hand-crafted, thrifted, recycled, or repurposed products (and buy waaaaaay less) – [Good On You, and Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index are two good resources for accountability on ethics]. And some can even invest in switching to solar energy from electricity. We can even get creative and continue to innovate ways to produce renewable and reusable alternatives for all commodities that harm the earth.
All in all, our planet is in real deep shit. Even if we were all to have the privilege and power to divest from all of these fire-breathing dragons in our world of capitalism, unrolling the amount of environmental damage we have already done is a monumental task. The deceleration of the climate and ecological crisis is intimately tied to making the sum of these divestments accessible for everyone. There is no green revolution without a demand to end exploitative labor practices. There is no green revolution without a complete overhaul of the prison industrial complex. There is no green revolution without protesting all causes of displacement, creating policy-level housing reform, abolishing ICE, whistleblowing on pervasive racism and cultural appropriation, seeking reparations for all disenfranchised groups, or the million of other oppressions that make living unsustainable for any one demographic. And to circle all the way back, there is no green revolution without demanding immediate, full-scale action from our national leaders to drive policy and enforce regulations that meet our collective climate crisis head on. Achieving anything close to circularity demands for our concerted effort to fight to have freedom for all, because interconnectedness with the land also depends on the intersectionality of our justice. This also, our liturgy, is our spiritual act of worship.
* God, gold, and glory have each been motivations behind other conquests undertaken by non-European, non-Christian empires as well, but none are rooted in dominionist theologies that uniquely emphasize the biblical idea of the cultural mandate