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Earth’s health, our health: A spirituality of ecology amid a global pandemic

Rev. Dr. Elmo Familiaran

April 24, 2020

Most days, even as I go about my routine activities, I spend a good amount of time reflecting on the zeitgeist that each day presents. As I write this article, I find myself quarantined at home in the midst of the immanence of two ubiquitous themes: the COVID-19 pandemic, and the celebration of Earth Day on April 22, 2020, with its emphasis this year on climate action.

Science and theology have always coexisted in a comfortable and familiar relationship in my personal and spiritual journey. I was a community health nurse in the Philippines, headed to medical school, before I experienced a dramatic call to ministry. That admixture of academic disciplines has always informed my understanding of the world. And so as I was contemplating how the themes of Earth Day and the COVID-19 pandemic might be linked to each other, I was led to the premise that the emergence of the novel coronavirus is directly linked to how we relate to the planet and God’s creation.

The command to lay the ground fallow on the seventh year as a Sabbath, and on the fiftieth year as a Year of Jubilee, underscores one of the most central assumptions of the biblical tradition which is that creation belongs to God.

The primary biblical text that reminded me of this interrelationship is Leviticus 25, which deals with the liturgical concepts of the Sabbath Year and the Year of Jubilee. This narrative came easily to me as descriptive of the biblical claim that the physical and spiritual realms of life are aspects of the same reality. This theme is implied in all the levels of the various provisions for the sacred observance of the holy day. The command to lay the ground fallow on the seventh year as a Sabbath, and on the fiftieth year as a Year of Jubilee, underscores one of the most central assumptions of the biblical tradition which is that creation belongs to God.

“…the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants” (v. 23)

This understanding is diametrically opposed to the dominant Western and capitalistic understanding of the individual’s natural right to unlimited private property, the philosophical underpinnings of which were articulated by the 17th century English philosopher, John Locke in his Second Treatise of Government. Whether Locke intended it or not, his ideas invariably led to the formulation of political and economic theories which lent credence to imperialistic conquests and colonialist drives of Western empires. Not unlike the outlook of its Spanish and Portuguese predecessors, it was a worldview which understood social and global interactions in terms of the dictum “finders keepers.” In this worldview, the land not owned is considered “common” land. And because it is “common,” it can be acquired without consent from anybody—notwithstanding whether indigenous peoples already inhabited the land.

But the concept of the Sabbath Year and the Year of Jubilee of laying the soil fallow—untilled and untouched—as an offering to God, is to mediate, at least liturgically, the reality that “the earth is the Lord’s.” The practical provisions governing the observance of these holy events are striking: it called for the liberation of slaves, and the return of property to its rightful owners. It called for justice in economics by allowing the nearest relative of someone to redeem back land which, by force of poverty, had to be sold. It was a time to sound the trumpet and proclaim liberty to all the inhabitants of the land. The economic and ethical implications of the holy observance no doubt were aimed at preventing the accumulation of property in the hands of the few in order to forestall the creation of oppressive socioeconomic relationships.

But a greater reality in my mind is implied in the narrative in its expressed intrusion of morality into economics:

“For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy for you.” (v. 12)

The discharge of the soil and of the earth is linked to the reverence of the divine. Indeed, the way we interact with our physical world is diagnostic of our spiritual state of being.

The struggle to care for the integrity of our creation cannot be waged and sustained apart from the struggle for justice amongst people. Biblically, justice and a spirituality of ecology are linked to each other in one ecosystem.

It is clear in the text that the struggle to care for the integrity of our creation cannot be waged and sustained apart from the struggle for justice amongst people. Biblically, justice and a spirituality of ecology are linked to each other in one ecosystem. From this point of view, the faithful stewardship of the earth and its resources necessarily issues forth in the just reordering of human relationships. Similarly, justice making in the community of peoples—in its economics and in its politics—issues forth in concrete reverential acts towards creation and nature.

In other words, Scripture views the amoral exploitation and cruelty inflicted upon the earth and its people, as acts based upon an atheistic worldview. The very nature of spirituality, which presupposes the governance of the divine, is a perspective which is inherently supportive of the goals of justice making and the struggle to maintain ecological integrity. In 1990, 23 internationally respected scientists led by Carl Sagan and Hans Bethe, both renowned American astrophysicists and astronomers, issued “An Appeal for Joint Commitment in Science and Religion,” which said in part:

As scientists, many of us have had profound experiences of awe and reverence before the universe. We understand that what is regarded as sacred is more likely to be treated with care and respect. Our planetary home should be so treated. Efforts to safeguard and cherish the environment need to be infused with a vision of the sacred.

These scientists expressed their conviction that science and religion have vital roles to play in changing human behavior, and by extension, the way humans relate with nature. They asserted that religious communities make important contributions to questions of peace, human rights, and social justice. I find it very interesting that I hear this vision of the inner unity between science and nature more from scientists, than from the people I know in the field of religion.

Science has taught us that microorganisms are also integral parts of nature. Viruses and bacteria are living things found everywhere on earth where there is life. In fact, viruses, which are smaller than most bacteria, are the most numerous of all life forms. And as nature would have it, all living things on earth inhabit a given ecosystem where they are supposed to coexist in balanced mutuality with each other.

But humans have long breached these ecosystems in their insatiable, avaricious, and reckless pursuit of their own survival through the rampant destruction of habitats, deforestation, and environmental pollution to make way for their own acquisitive and expansionist objectives. As if these were not enough, rapacious economics have led to horrific mass exploitation of food sources in nature through overfishing, hunting, the superstitious consumption of wild meat, and artificial mass domestication of animals outside of their natural habitats, disrupting inviolably the ecological balance that they, heretofore, contributed to and needed in the maintenance of homeostasis of their ecosystems. Corporate greed, hyper development, and the rapacious economics that come with it, have displaced entire human communities, causing mass movements of peoples seeking to settle in new, unfamiliar surroundings, making them vulnerable hosts to new pathogens against which they do not yet have any degree of immunity.

In these ecological disruptions, viruses and bacteria that have been locked away by nature in their own ecosystems, are invariably unleashed. Once their natural barriers are breached, they cross species and find new hosts among humans. COVID-19 is called “novel” because it is new to humanity. Human beings do not yet have community immunity to guard against it. When Western empires invaded and colonized indigenous peoples, they breached their community immunity by introducing new, “novel” pathogens that the ecosystem of those native peoples had never encountered before. It caused widespread epidemics, and in some cases it wiped out entire civilizations.

God created nature and pronounced it “good.” The inner unity and beauty of nature cohere in the harmonious place that each living organism inhabits in an ecosystem. The common theme that weaves through the creation story in Scripture, is that each member of nature has been granted a designated place—on land, sea, air, and the cosmos. God made it so that humans and nature can coexist, but God gave humans the greater responsibility of being the caretaker, the steward, of God’s handiwork. A closer look at the text is quite informative.

As Jeff A. Benner notes in his ancient Hebrew word study, the commands to “subdue” and to “have dominion” over the earth, are derived from the original Hebrew words, kavash and radah, respectively. Kavash is the verb form of the noun, kevesh, which literally means “a footstool,” like putting one’s foot on the neck of one’s defeated enemy. And so, to “put a kavash” on something figuratively means to bring someone or something into submission. Our common understanding of to “have dominion” over another is to tyrannically rule over subjects. But the verb radah belongs to a word group that conveys the meanings of to descend, to go down, to wander around—to rule by going down and walking among one’s subjects as an equal. And so scholars have long interpreted the existence of the words kavash and radah in the same verse to mean that humans are to rule over the animals and the fruits of the earth not as a tyrant or a dictator, but as a benevolent leader acting out of profound gratitude to the bounty that creator God has granted to them. God, therefore, calls humanity to have a relationship with creation that reveres the work of the creator, so that nature not only provides for the needs of humanity, but also teaches humanity about the unity of all of life.

As stewards of the earth, we are to watch over nature and enjoy its abundance. To “subdue” and “have dominion” over the earth does not mean to plunder it, nor to take from it more than it can give. Humans have been directly instrumental in the extinction of many species for violating such a simple rule of nature. To be stewards of the earth, in the biblical sense, means that we are to be mindful of the fragility of nature, and to revere its finiteness. In doing so, we become mindful of our own fragility and revere our own finiteness.

The Mozuku seaweed, which grows around the island of Okinawa, is one of the most sought-after delicacies in Japan. Okinawans have followed for centuries the traditional Japanese wisdom of satoumi (pronounced, sato-umi), which essentially means, “when you work harmoniously with nature, the sea will always provide.” In the clear, shallow coastal waters around the island are vast underwater grids of natural fiber rope, spread around in sectors that provide the platform on which the prized seaweed grows naturally. It is then harvested manually by a scuba diver based on flat-bottomed boats, using a handheld hydraulic-powered vacuum hose that gently sucks the seaweed onto the boat above, barely disturbing the ecosystem below the water surface. Okinawans have cultivated this food source in its own natural habitat, and have developed carefully scheduled harvesting methods that ensure sustainability. This philosophy has guided these marine farmers to relate with ecosystems in a harmonious way for prolonged periods of time. And in that sustained symbiotic relationship where nature is treated with reverence, new landscapes were formed whereupon humans and nature can coexist harmoniously.

They practice kavash and radah.

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that we are all part of a complex, fragile, and tenuous planetary web of interconnectedness. This pandemic has shattered our delusions that, as humans, our primary reason for existence is to reign over and exploit nature, that we are to not care about the integrity of the earth because we are disembodied from the rest of creation, and that our actions do not have consequences that affect us.

In the ecological and social upheaval that the earth is going through right now because of the pandemic, we see the deconstruction of long-held assumptions of how we have organized ourselves as a society. It has acutely exposed the injustices of a global economy whose wealth and resources are controlled to benefit only a privileged few. It has exposed the plight of the poor, the less privileged, and the subsistence worker, and the scandal of their lack of access to basic health care and living wages.

We are also discovering the limits of the digital age as organizations and religious communities struggle to find alternative ways of organizing within the constraints of the massive social distancing requirements of health guidelines. While the Internet has made us more connected, it also reveals that it can make us more isolated.

We cannot go back to normal, if normality is understood as the way things used to be and the usual ways we behaved towards each other and nature. Scientists will soon disclose with certainty the source or the host of the COVID-19 virus. And when that source is identified, we will also learn how that source jumped species and entered the human community. With that knowledge, human behavior will and must inviolably change. The behavior towards nature, and towards each other, that led to the pandemic can no longer be repeated, even with the advent of a vaccine.

The church must reassert its voice in society as passionate advocates of the care of the earth, not merely as a political cause or as a programmatic adjunct to its mission. Rather, the church must be frontline advocates for the care of the earth as a matter of fundamental biblical and spiritual responsibility.

The tragedy of this pandemic is revealing so much darkness in our society, in our economy, and in our politics. But is has also revealed so much heretofore unseen ways of humanity’s capacity for goodness, as peoples and strangers reach out in new ways to help and comfort each other. The church now has a powerful platform to reclaim one of its ascribed and ancient voices, granted to her as a people of God. The church must reassert its voice in society as passionate advocates of the care of the earth, not merely as a political cause or as a programmatic adjunct to its mission. Rather, the church must be frontline advocates for the care of the earth as a matter of fundamental biblical and spiritual responsibility.

The earth’s health is our health.

The Rev. Dr. Elmo Familiaran is a pastor, writer, and practitioner in the mission and purpose of the church in the world. Ordained in the American Baptist Churches, USA, he is a 39-year veteran in pastoral ministry, in ecumenical and cross-cultural engagement, and executive leadership in both national and regional denominational settings.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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