Photo by Esther Tuttle on Unsplash.

Eco-theology: Earth Day should be an everyday thing

Rev. Bryan D. Jackson

April 22, 2020

Americans like to make a big deal out of Earth Day—and they should. Interestingly, though, for some of us, every day is Earth Day.

April 22, 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Democratic Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson had tried for some time to get the U.S. government to comprehend that the planet was in need of some serious attention. In January 1969, an oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara tragically killed sea life in staggering but still unknown numbers. During the summer of that year, chemical waste disposal was also brought to the forefront when, on June 22, a spark ignited floating debris on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio. It was a minor fire by comparison, but it set off community and then national outrage, and a movement was born. Thanks to Nelson, a Harvard graduate student named Denis Hayes, and a group of others, the first Earth Day was co-founded, and greeted with much acceptance.

The inaugural Earth Day, April 22, 1970, was observed in a number of cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. The new national event brought together a number of celebrities such as Ali McGraw and Paul Newman in New York City, at a rally on a portioned-off section of Fifth Avenue, and Pete Seeger and others in Washington, D.C. It proved effective and ever since, we have made a point of observing the day. Since those early years, people have rallied around the concepts of conservation, environmental protection, and ecological well-being. But why do we need an annual day to remind us of these all-important ideals? Shouldn’t we have made these goals a matter of daily practice by now?

Since the first Earth Day in 1970, people have rallied around the concepts of conservation, environmental protection, and ecological well-being. But why do we need an annual day to remind us of these all-important ideals? Shouldn’t we have made these goals a matter of daily practice by now?

My Cherokee ancestors did just that by honoring the land; indeed, land is sacred to most American Indian tribes. They harvested vegetables such as the wild potato, tomato, squash, and corn, giving the Creator thanks for their bounty and shared what they could with their neighbors. They were so in tune with the land and their relationship to it that they would probably find the idea of an “Earth Day” uproarious.

In some places, Earth Day is preceded by “Earth Week,” beginning on April 16 and culminating in Earth Day on April 22. People are encouraged to pinpoint an environmental cause and take action steps to influence that cause. Again, if we, as a matter of course, are already cognizant of ecological deficiencies and do our best to act on them, Earth Day can seem a bit anticlimactic, though no less important by any means. The idea of Earth Week reminds me of those Cherokee ancestors and the tradition of working to make things better for the next seven generations. What, in your case, can you do or are you working on that might have an impact seven generations down the line?

Given the complexities regarding things such as our current plastics crisis, which includes the various ocean gyres, it hits home than none of us are perfect: We might do everything in our personal power to be eco-friendly, but somewhere, somehow, we are going to have a negative impact on the planet. It is now part of being human. The question is, how much of a negative impact will we have, and what can we do to make it more positive? We are called, from a biblical standpoint, to stop and consider our surroundings. The Book of Isaiah speaks to this, particularly with regard to our covenant with the land and how our fellow beings suffer because of our carelessness.

Personally, I have found that adopting a whole food, plant-based lifestyle has permitted me to substantially reduce my carbon footprint on this earth. From an agricultural perspective, it might well be the one thing I do that produces the greatest impact, especially with respect to water usage. Thus, I would advance the proposition that we are better served adopting something that makes sense to us on a personal level for the long term, rather than merely applauding the notion of an Earth Day and using just the one day, or just Earth Week, to self-examine. It is, simply, not enough. If we’re going to change the earth, we must do so with the type of conviction that produces a constructive change in our character. In some theological circles, evidence regarding being “born again” is demonstrated through a transformed way of living. Well, there you go. Ecological conviction by way of eco-theology is self-evident when its adherents show they mean it, offering data that gives way to action that benefits the planet and its occupants.

Whoever added the last section of the Gospel of Mark was a genius. Whenever I did a blessing of the animals service, I never failed to quote Mark 16:15, where Jesus said, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation.” (RSV) The whole creation, as I comprehend it, includes that which was indeed created; period. As my Cherokee family might say, “all my relations,” which can include the oceans, rivers, streams, trees, and rocks, as well as our beloved animal relatives.

So, what, if anything, would you like to do in recognition and/or celebration of what has become known as “Earth Day?” I trust that, whatever you choose, you will do so with the knowledge that we stand on the shoulders of giants: our ancestors, courageous and enlightened individuals from Scripture, people like the founders of Earth Day itself and those in general who have come before us to ensure that this movement has lasted 50 years. Breathe in, breathe out, and let us with thanks take individual and corporate action to ensure that it not only lasts another 50, but that its effects benefit the next seven generations.  

The Rev. Bryan D. Jackson is an American Baptist minister and a member of the Mount Hood Cherokees, a satellite community of the Cherokee Nation. He lives in Kirkland, Washington and is the author of Chattahoochee Rain: A Cherokee novella.

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

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