Saturday, May 13, 2017

Repentance and Healing the Land

Repentance and Healing the Land
by Curt Karns

One of the Spirit’s movements of the past few years has been the linkage of ministry aimed at addressing the renunciation of the doctrine of discovery with ministry aimed at addressing climate change. In the Presbytery of Yukon we have held three special events making that linkage,[1] and many others are also engaged in that effort—including the upcoming Presbyterians for Earth Care’s National Conference, Blessing the Waters of Life: Justice and Healing for Our Watershed to be held at Menucha Retreat Center in September.

Given all this coordinated action, it is important to show why repentance from the doctrine of discovery fits hand-in-hand with climate change ministry.  For some, I believe, the connection will not be obvious.  Yet, the two efforts are really the right and left hand of one, integrated focus for ministry.  To begin making that point, let me lean on biblical scholar, Matthew Richard Schlimm. Schlimm points out that the Hebrew Bible connects repentance from moral sin[2] with caring for the land.

(In the Hebrew Bible) Severe moral impurities contaminated both the sinner and the land itself.  Leviticus 18 says that the land itself is sickened by such pollutions:

‘Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, for by all these practices the nations I am casting out before you have defiled themselves. Thus the land became defiled; and I punished it for its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you shall keep my statutes and my ordinances and commit none of these abominations … otherwise the land will vomit you out for defiling it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. For whoever commits any of these abominations shall be cut off from their people. So keep my charge not to commit any of these abominations that were done before you, and not to defile yourselves by them: I am the Lord your God.’ (18:24-26, 28 NRSV, italics added)

In the Bible, the land is not a passive object that humans can simply manipulate.  It is one of God’s agents in the world.[3]

It follows that in the same way polluting oneself through moral sin brings sickness on the land, the healing of the land can come through repenting from the moral sin.  For instance, in accepting Solomon’s Temple as a place for bringing the people’s prayers, God assures Solomon that this will be the place to bring sacrifices and prayers of repentance when the land is defiled.

When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people [that is, whenever the land threatens to vomit the people out], if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land. (2 Chronicles 7:13-14, NRSV, bracketed section added)

For 21st century, western Christians, this may seem to be a strange teaching. In this passage, as always in the Bible, it is important to look for the Word that God would have us discover within the words of scripture.

Reading Leviticus too literally can become problematic.  For instance, most Christians are not willing to accept every ruling listed in the Levitical code as applicable for today.[4]  Yet, Leviticus remains a part of our canon and does hold important wisdom for us.  It is, therefore, no great leap to believe that the same corruption of the heart that makes us willing to exploit people would also cause us to become blind to our own culpability in whatever is making the land ill. We have seen the environmental impact human action has brought upon our planet in the past two centuries.  Should we really be surprised by the biblical message informing us that our moral sin can cause the land to become ill?  Indeed, climate scientists have been cautioning us for decades that we must repent—we must change how we live and begin to walk a different path—or the land may become too sick to sustain human life as we know it.  We may well find ourselves vomited out from the land.

Strangely, as much as this reasoning is guided by modern science, and even common sense, we humans seem incapable of accepting its wisdom, or of working together to deal with it. Our distrust of one another, and our greed for power and for material wealth, blind us to the opportunity for good that God has set before us.

In this, I believe the doctrine of discovery is instructive. This morally flawed doctrine provided western culture with a false and dangerous Euro-Christian ethic for taking land from indigenous people. It also authorized any actions needed to subdue the local residents. In practice this included enslaving them, or shaming them for not being European in language and culture. It is important for us to see that this western worldview rationalizes the creation of colonies, with all the damage that colonization causes, for the purpose of enriching the people from the old world.

That being the case, this same exploitative worldview is also quick to rationalize practices that damage God’s creation. Both the exploiting of people and the exploiting of the land are things colonizers do for their own benefit. It is the opposite of “love your neighbor as yourselves.” In essence, it is a refusal to acknowledge the other, whether other people or other parts of creation, as a valid neighbor.

Similarly, Americans would love for the climate change problem to be dealt with, but “not in my backyard.”  None of our coal, oil or natural gas producing regions want to let go of the profits and jobs fossil fuels bring to their region.  The fact that their grandchildren will certainly suffer if they do not seems impossible to grasp.

Some are like the citizens at the time of Noah; they simply deny calamity is coming.

Others are more like the people of Israel and Judah as the armies of Babylon and Assyria threatened. They pray to God to save them but refuse the prophets’ message that God is calling each of us, and all of us, to take responsibility for our own actions.

These biblical stories, like the passages we have already looked at, are also clearly connected to the land. They tell us that the people of Noah’s day perished from this earth; and that the people of Israel and Judah were conquered and taken away from the land they loved.

Repentance is inconvenient. More than that, it is usually quite hard.  Destructive though it is, denial is usually easier.  Indeed, as we look at the doctrine of discovery, and see how the Supreme Court of the United States passed it into law in years past,[5] we must recognize how our own ancestors have passed on their ethno-centrism and greed up to our generation.

But what if there were other passages we should be listening to besides those that caution us against sin and its consequences? Can’t our spiritual health be guided as much by passages of hope as they are by passages of warning? Lately, I have been turning to Genesis 11:1-9 for hope.

This is the famous Tower of Babel passage.  This passage tells us about humans who were so united by language and culture that they came to believe they could harness the earth’s power to make themselves like God.  As they developed their technology and built their tower, God saw their arrogance and sin and decided to take action.  God then confused their languages and scattered them across the earth, so that they could no longer build a city of such technology and power.

Christians, like Jews, have always claimed that God loves us and is always at work for our salvation. Should we not consider it a gift that God divided the people according to languages and cultures? How, then, might we understand this the confusion of languages and worldviews as a gift from our loving and saving God? Let me suggest the following.

First, God has divided us into many peoples. Therefore, no one people has all the wisdom. In humility therefore, we need to look for the gifts other peoples have to share with us. Sharing, after all, is a biblical value: in sharing together the early church demonstrated a new way of being God’s people; further, it is in our shared unity that we share in the fullness of Christ’s body.

Second, our Lord tells us,

"You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant." (Matthew 20:25-26).

Dominating power should not be an acceptable goal for gauging human success or happiness. Human relationships that fail to honor the essence of another culture, person, or creature of this earth, will not lead to happiness or health. This should change the ethics that guide how we build our societies and our economies. Slave labor, or subjugated labor in any form, is unethical.

Third, the Bible reveals God to us as the Trinity, a relational way of being. We should not be surprised if the modern challenges of the planet also challenge us to learn how to collaborate and cooperate better. In so doing we surely learn more about being created as the image of God.

Finally, if the land/sea/air is getting sicker, we should be asking how to respond. How should we repent? It is the repentance of the people that leads to the healing of the land. For Christians, the concerns and ministries related to earth care truly are part and parcel of the concerns and ministries related to the doctrine of discovery. The current crises in each of these areas are consequences of the dominant worldview—a worldview that, unfortunately, shapes its adherents to participate in the exploitation of people and land.

For Christians, the concerns and ministries related to earth care truly are part and parcel of the concerns and ministries related to the doctrine of discovery. The current crises in each of these areas are consequences of the dominant worldview—a worldview that, unfortunately, shapes its adherents to participate in the exploitation of people and land.

As Christians, we put our trust in God who created and loves all things. As we put our trust in God, we let go of any trust in happiness that is based on lording it over others. Instead, we embrace the biblical vision that calls us to love God, and to love neighbor as self.

In this generation, loving God and neighbor includes repentance from the doctrine of discovery and the worldview that generated it. It includes being purposeful in seeking out allies, who are interested in new experiments for living into a just future. We expect those allies will come from a variety of cultural backgrounds, because we recognize the variety of gifts God has placed in different peoples. Indeed, our efforts with our allies will be to learn from the past in order to live better into the future, as God guides us. Our goals must be to advocate for needed changes in the dominant culture, to advocate for a stronger response from the faith community, to advance experiments in sustainable human lifestyles, and to build just societies where all creation, including people, thrive together.

Curt Karns is the Executive Presbyter of Yukon Presbytery and former
 Presbyterians for Earth Care Northwest Regional Representative.

[1] Three major events in the Presbytery of Yukon
  • The New Beginnings Reconciliation Event in 2012, between the Presbytery of Yukon and the St. Lawrence Island Yupik people in Gambell, Alaska;
  • The Presbyterians for Earth Care Regional Conference held in Alaska in 2012, and
  • The Renewal and Healing Event in 2017 between the PC(USA) and the Iñupiaq people, held in conjunction with Kivgiq in Utqiaġvik, Alaska.
[2] The Hebrew Bible differentiates between ritual uncleanness and moral uncleanness.  Ritual uncleanness is not about sin, but about something that happens that requires purification.  A good example is the handling of dead bodies. Death is just something that happens; there is no sin attached.  Someone has to deal with the dead bodies, risky though it might be, and purification is prescribed. Moral uncleanness is different, however, bringing spiritual dis-ease both to the person and to the whole of creation.

[3] Schlimm, Matthew Richard (2015). This Strange and Sacred Scripture: Wrestling with the Old Testament and Its Oddities. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, p. 118).
[4] There are clearly cultural prejudices involved that we should reject today.  For instance, Lev. 27:1-4 clearly indicates that women are only worth 3/5 that of men.  Other passages bar those with disabilities from bringing sacrifices (21:16-23), show ignorance of sexual orientation (20:13), etc.
[5] Johnson v. McIntosh, 1823, followed by many others up to modern times (e.g., City of Sherrill, New York v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York, 2005).

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