Thursday, April 21, 2011


Crucifying the Earth: The Conjunction of Earth Day and Good Friday

Matthew Fox said it years ago. We are crucifying the earth. This week the calendar suggests as much, for Good Friday and Earth Day fall on the same day.

I live in the Bible Belt, and thus resisted the urge to publish my thoughts on the implications of this conjunction in the local paper. It would only arouse defensiveness, much as a recent pastor's statement that he “believes in the laws of physics.” Neither prophetic theology nor the laws of physiscs are verly popular these days. If we care about the earth, our purpose is not to score points, but to arouse the sleeping prophet-citizen to action. But for the discerning audience of this blog, the conjunction is worth examining.

When I suggested at Celo Friends Meeting at the beginning of this Earth Week that we look at the conjunction as a query, there were many responses, ranging from affirming the importance of spring rituals of rebirth (including the environmental movement, and our commitment to it) to the statement, “The earth is not a passive victim, but an elemental force we ignore at our peril. Witness recent events..”

This last statement gets beyond the general - though profound – rebirth analogies. Frankly, I was not thinking resurrection when I pointed to the conjunction, but the systematic, willful torture of the biosphere for our narrow interest, our enormous greed, colonizing the earth for our species' imperial appetite. Yes, I would answer my neighbors, theologically, there are clear differences. The key one is that once dead, the earth will not be reborn. The Creator has infinite power to create other universes, other planets with life, including intelligent life capable of seeking out its Source. But this earth, once past its developmental ability to evolve higher life, will not be “reborn” in any significant sense.

Insightful ecologists point out that we are not trying to save the earth so much as save the possibility of civilized higher life within it. To “crucify” implies that the earth is other, is an enemy, is alien, yet we are part of the earth's fabric. Crucifixion is perhaps not the best metaphor. Cancer would be more like it, where aberrant cells attack the host. Aiding and abetting that cancer through behavior normalized by habitual industrial behavior amounts to suicide. Destroying ourselves, we will bring down huge portions of the earths' intermeshed fabric of species. The fabric will reweave, using the waning energy of the sun during the waning of the earth and its host universe. But the time, as James Lovelock points out, will be insufficient for the aging earth to orchestrate an alchemy requiring enormous evolutionary time to fulfill. Peter Sawtell believes in the laws of physics, and so do I. I also agree with the laws of evolutionary biology, for which we have God to thank.

The analogy of crucifixion for the death-dance we are playing as hosts of higher life on this remarkable planet may be inexact, but consider the following: mountaintop removal, blowing up an area of the Appalachians greater than Rhode Island in three states, sending the rubble into streams, permanently blocking them, incidentally destroying many small mining towns. Deepwater drilling into the seabed, extracting oil from hundreds of square miles of ocean floor, endangering the entire oceanic ecosystem. Drilling and mining of all kinds, which was prohibited by ancient peoples, sensitive that the earth was Mother. These activities of piercing the earth begin to compare with the piercing and bloodletting of the Savior, do they not? The most striking crucifixion image analogue for me comes from hydrofracking . When gas companies inject their proprietary poison, mixed with water, into the Marcellus Shale and other irregular deposits of methane, the resultant cracking of underground bedrock creates a whole network of jagged fissures. What do you see when you observe the image? I see a crown of thorns embedded in the earth herself. It is absolutely striking.

The depletion and poisoning of water, so much more essential than oil, gas and coal, goes beyond the image of crucifixion by piercing. The other hugely desperate campaign of flushing oil from tarsands is currently consuming a significant portion of Canada's greatest resource, fresh water. We are starving species, steadily robbing habitat to swell the ranks of modern cities and farms, and now we are systematically removing freshwater from terrestrial life through industrial-scale mining of water. This larger context is not crucifixion so much as suicidal madness.

The moral crux for me is the whole business of forgiveness, and the admonition to accept it and to go and sin no more. As he lay dying, Jesus of Nazareth asked his Father to forgive them, for they know not what they do. Mother earth will not - cannot - forgive. She will persevere, although in a diminished state of complexity and wonder. And what, pray, would the father God's forgiveness mean if there were no suitable biosphere in which to continue to enact moral choice? If we fail to respond to humanity's greatest moral crisis, then presuming to understand the nature of the inscrutable, unknowable Creator's forgiveness as the trans-earthly resurrection of at least a generation of ecological sinners is frankly meaningless theologizing.

So do we know what we do? What canst thou say, oh earth citizen? My answer is yes, I know, and I keep on doing it, though moderated both by a sense of guilt and an inconstant love of the rest of Creation. I strive to be an earth citizen, but in terms of behavior, I live an industrial lifestyle, in my best years (depending on air travel) emitting five times the sustainable share of CO2 – and that's living at half the American standard.

Crucifixion, cancer, species suicide, we are all culpable. Those who kill the Earth Tree sprout on all sides: the right-wingers who would deny the laws of physics because they prefer the notion of radical freedom of a creature who is nevertheless totally enveloped in the web of creation; the liberals, Sierra Club types who want to preserve post-card views of nature while contributing far more than the poor mountaineer to its destruction by their life-style and investment habits; the progressives who would shut down all coal and nuclear plants while continuing to live industrial lifestyles insupportable by a utopian future solely powered by renewable energy sources; terrorists and the armies of the “just” who wantonly lay waste the earth as they struggle for geopolitical and ideological dominance. All of us, but especially the politicians on all sides who are more interested in re-election than in conserving the basis of civilized life

And who are the blameless? The tiny tattered bands of First Peoples deep in the forests, now numbering only a few million, who, like so many other creatures, suffer from rapidly-diminishing habitat. They and a scattering of courageous, brilliant small farmers and tinkerers are the remnant from which continued higher life on earth, still a remote possibility, might spring again. Perhaps it is more accurate to say it is these First Peoples who are crucified, and the preservation of the essential functional human form is a kind of resurrection. If we lived as they do, we would not have had to invent Earth Day, nor arguably, would a savior-god have had to be crucified to bring meaning to the lives of masses brought in great confusion to urban centers in the aftermath of broken tribal organization.

Informed by the ecologist's understanding of our deeply enmeshed life within a biocentric web, I nevertheless accept the Tea Party's emphasis on individual freedom. We are free to make moral choice, giving us meaning as beings, equally giving God's wager on us meaning, rather then simply creating puppets. Perhaps even more important, the saving grace, is that God is free to start over with Creation if his appointed stewards trash this one. I fear that if is perilously close to when. God have mercy upon us, and save us from our lost selves.

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