Books & Essays
SURVEYING THE LANDSCAPE
The natural heritage of this bioregion is characterized by dense thickets of Catawba Rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense) and ubiquitous Baptist churches. In the Southern Appalachians, twisted Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia) prepares to bloom while Catholics observe the season of Lent. The pink or white blooms of ?rhodos? and mountain laurels are nearly as anticipated as the Risen Christ. In the southeast, we simultaneously travel the Billy Graham Parkway and follow the path of Jesus. Harbingers of the changing seasons include spring revivals and mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) emerging along river trails. The oppressive summer heat reminds us of the fires of hell and drives us to seek respite in mountain ?hollers? or cool, deep pools of beloved streams. Thoughts of the eternal heat inspire us to attend a religious retreat in the mountains in order to realign our priorities once and for all. For the younger audiences, the crop of vacation bible schools and summer camps is rivaled only by invasive exotic kudzu. These sacred mountains are the backdrop for a cell phone tower that doubles as an enormous crucifix. While talking on their cell phones, locals make plans to pick their kids up from camp. They also agree to exchange seeds from their heirloom tomatoes and share secrets about where to find wild ginseng. Like the Body of Christ, our natural heritage is life giving; and in the South, the two are inextricably linked.
It is impossible to ignore that the heart of the Bible Belt encompasses the barrier islands of North Carolina, the longleaf pine ecosystems of Georgia, the biodiverse Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, the delicate estuaries of Virginia, and the gulf shores and natural hardwood forests of Alabama. Did these ecosystems inspire the deep, persistent faith that is as much a part of the natural history as it is the cultural history of the region? If so, what will happen to our faith as our natural heritage is diminished in beauty and value? Will we cease to be captured by the mystery? What becomes of our faith when even our churches begin to resemble the big box retail of consumer culture? What does it mean when the rich biodiversity of this region is lost to another development whose street names honor endemic species that once existed under the paved surfaces and subdivided lots of gated communities? Are we willing to trade a dozen trillium species for 18 more holes of golf? Will the icons of our churches begin to reflect new saints? Will we pray to the Virgin of the Bulldozer? Will the nuances of Appalachian religion be exchanged for a shopping center that could be found Anywhere, U.S.A.? What does our faith require of us?
Genuine Christian faith, no matter the form it takes, begs us to ask these difficult questions. In the midst of an environmental crisis, followers of Jesus Christ must examine the roots of Christianity and reconcile a conflicted history.
According to Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, ?Early modern religion contributed to the idea that the fate of nature is to be bossed around by a detached sovereign will, whether divine or human.? This past fall, my husband (who happens to be a man of the cloth) and I presented at the 34th Annual North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico. During the presentation, participants from across the continent were asked to share their perspective of the Church?s relationship with creation. Using one word or phrase, participants summarized their experiences and feelings, and then located them on a continuum that spanned from active destruction of creation on one end, ignorant misuse in the middle, to mindful care and concern on the opposite extreme. While responses varied to span the length of the continuum, most revealed frustration with a misguided theology of dominion. From their perspective, ?nature? is an area to be paved over for a bigger parking lot and church.?
In this bioregion, there are ample reminders that ?Jesus Saves!? Billboards along the I-40 corridor and bumper stickers (that we have miraculously evolved to read while driving 70 miles per hour) proclaim watered down versions of the Lord?s saving grace: ?God allows U turns!? It is time to proclaim the Good News. If Jesus? death redeems even those who commit adultery and murder, He will certainly forgive even the most deplorable environmental crimes?or sins, of our time.
Our penance is to critically reflect on how and why we continue to stray from creation and the natural themes that are at the core of the Christian tradition. This disconnect is evident in the slogans that are part of Christian pop culture. Nowadays and along an endless ribbon of interstate, it is commonplace for God to query, ?Will the road you?re on get you to my place?? A sign in front of one of the many churches that define our Southern landscape reads, ?Wal-Mart isn?t the only saving place!?
Wilderness, and its transformative power, is a reoccurring theme in the Bible. Moses did not encounter the Holy Spirit on an impervious parking lot and John the Baptist did not baptize his cousin in a highly degraded river or stream. While some claim that the prophets of the past do not adequately speak to the environmental dilemma of our time, our faith has always been about holy ground and sacred places. Christianity, like the natural world, is not static. What are the great floods and plagues of our time? Believing that ?Jesus saves? does not make us exempt from assuming personal and societal responsibility for climate change. Instead, local manifestations of climate instability, poor air quality and violent storms?call us to be modern day prophets. Followers of Jesus are called to protect the places that sustain our faith, and therefore sustain both us and our neighbors.
FOR THE LOVE OF CHRIST
The editor of Worldviews, Religion, & the Environment, Richard C. Foltz, writes, ?the environmental crisis is merely a symptom?albeit a highly dramatic one?of a deeper spiritual crisis.? Seeing people and issues in terms of black or white?and segregating accordingly, is perhaps the deepest moral scar of the South. Historically and presently, this moral flaw yields spiritual crises and opportunities. Like the Civil Rights Movement, a successful environmental movement requires deep spiritual underpinnings. At best, faith communities can only limp along if people of faith do not demand a Sabbath for the Earth. Likewise, the largely secular environmental movement will be hobbled if it does not embrace a religious or spiritual dimension.
How many secular environmentalists mock those who drop to their knees in prayer? These people are bible beaters, fundamentalists, and extremists. How many deeply religious people snub those who attempt to protect a stand of old growth forest from ending up at a chip mill? These people are eco-sabateurs, monkeywrenchers, and extremists. What can these groups learn from each other and how can they find common ground, and even holy ground in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ? What do they have to learn from an extremist who died living his faith, doing his job, and nailed to a tree?
JESUS? THIRD WAY
Jesus shunned passivity and violence and was therefore frequently challenged to find a third way in order to deal with enemies and oppressors. During His lifetime, in a land under Roman occupation, Roman soldiers were allowed to take a Jew as a beast of burden to carry their packs for one mile. However, forcing someone to carry a pack beyond one mile was a punishable and measurable abuse of power; the Romans were organized to the point of having mile markers along their roads.
Matthew 5:41 reads, ?if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.? This passage is so familiar that it is known outside of religious circles as an idiomatic expression generally interpreted to mean ?to work extra hard.? If we interpret this same passage with a clearer understanding of the sociopolitical environment of the time, we witness Jesus practicing and instructing his followers to exercise nonviolent resistance.
In this context, Christians and secular environmentalists are forced to find common ground and Jesus continues to work miracles in the world. Christians who are dubious of progressive social change see Jesus? teachings reflected in the nonviolent strategies of environmentalists who are fighting to protect and preserve the Cumberland Plateau from logging. In the same way, environmentalists who are suspicious of Christianity actually reflect the tradition in its purest form through their vocation.
There is a daily tension that exists in the religiously diverse South and it is aggravated by a stressful political climate. This milieu makes it easy to imagine Jesus carrying the pack of Roman soldiers. We can imagine the hurtful words that were wielded and the uncomfortable silence that existed between the soldiers, Jesus, passerbys, and onlookers. Fast forward to a scene of Jesus ?walking an extra mile.? When Jesus refused to creatively give up the pack, did the soldiers imagine their own punishment? Were they humbled as their position of power was transformed to powerlessness with Jesus? every step? Did Jesus feel the growing suffering of the soldiers more than the weight on his back? Did the soldiers notice how the heavy pack cuts into Jesus? skin the same way that it would weigh on their own flesh? Whatever the questions, something more human happened in that extra mile.
Similarly, something more human happens when we no longer see the contrast between Christians and environmentalists. Neither is the enemy; neither is the oppressor. Instead, the destruction of the South?s natural heritage represents the face of evil; it is the enemy and oppressor. Its expressions vary throughout the region: mountaintop removal in Tennessee, loss of aquatic species in Alabama, sprawling growth in Georgia, overdevelopment of coastal landscapes in South Carolina, gratuitous road building and logging in Virginia, and unwieldy commercial and residential development that threatens North Carolina from its coasts to the mountains where I make my home. Each of these expressions of evil has a high cost for human health and represents a disproportionate burden on the most disadvantaged and vulnerable populations throughout the region. More and more children suffer from asthma, low-income residents are displaced from their homes without compensation in order to make room for another shopping complex, and polluting industries are located in the poorest neighborhoods.
Walking a third way, I recall the words of theologian Leonardo Boff in his book Ecology & Liberation, ?This mystique of ethical commitment?because God is to be found in just actions and loving relations with others?is accompanied by a mystique of contemplation.? The environmental crisis implores Christians to plumb the depths of Scripture and marinate on our conflicted relationship with the natural world and the secular environmental movement. An ethical commitment to creation moves beyond contemplation and towards action. The degradation of our natural heritage and the social consequences of this for the least of God?s people urgently calls us to be in right relationship with the systems and cycles of the ecosystems to which we are intrinsically bound.
CARRYING THE CROSS
From Christian Education that cultivates awareness and care for creation, to organic bread and wine being served at communion, to churches performing energy audits and making commitments to reduce the ecological footprints of their congregations?the foundation has been laid for a powerful, faith-based creation care movement. Religious environmentalism or creation care (a term that is more widely palatable because it diffuses connotations and breaks down partisan stereotypes associated with environmentalists or environmentalism) refers to efforts that promote awareness and care for God?s creation.
The National Council of Churches USA, based in Washington, D.C., is an ecumenical partnership of Christian denominations. Its Eco-Justice Working Group is committed to ?Justice for God?s planet and God?s people.? Among its resources is an anthology of environmental statements of intention made by various communions. Capacity building is available for people of faith who want to increase their commitment to the natural world and for environmental organizations that realize it is timely to increase their outreach to religious groups.
On the opposite coast is Earth Ministry, a Seattle-based non-profit whose work focuses on inspiring and mobilizing ?the Christian community to play a leadership role in building a just and sustainable future.? Their comprehensive approach to ?greening? the various dimensions of church life is helpful for those who might be overwhelmed by the environmental crises and do not know where to begin. For those unfamiliar with the term, greening refers to efforts that promote compassion and respect for all God?s creation. The six dimensions of greening: statements, worship (or liturgy), institutional life, education, outreach, and broader religious outreach, are outlined in their Greening Congregations Handbook. This handbook is likewise a great resource for secular environmentalists who are uncomfortable with religious jargon or practices, but want to more effectively engage people of faith in their work.
The Presbyterian Coffee Project is an excellent example of greening the institutional life and broader religious outreach of the church. Even those who are only slightly familiar with church life recognize that drinking coffee is a quintessential part of fellowship. Through the project, congregations commit to buying and serving fair trade coffee and therefore, encourage more sustainable practices and economic justice locally and globally. Suddenly, something as simple as coffee drinking after the Sunday morning service in Black Mountain, North Carolina encourages more just relationships with the natural world and our brothers and sisters in Christ on a different side of the globe.
Every three years, the Episcopal Church of the USA (ECUSA) gathers for General Convention in order to reflect on the state of the church and enact its work in the world. The last two conventions have been offset by or powered with wind energy. According to Reverend Sally Bingham, founder of the Regeneration Project, ?When we talk about powering General Convention with wind, the responses are inevitably snickers and smiles. Some people actually laugh out loud, and almost always someone says, "So what else is new?" The jokes, of course, refer to the "hot air" that circulates at every General Convention.? In 2003, ECUSA?s General Convention purchased enough wind tags to offset the amount of electricity used at the Minneapolis Convention Center with 100 percent wind energy as well as 25 percent of the electricity used by associated hotels. While this is an excellent example of greening the institutional life of the church on a large scale, similar efforts can be made at the local level. A youth group for example, might aim to sell a certain number of compact fluorescent light bulbs as a fundraiser and in order to make the Christmas service a climate neutral event.
The aforementioned organizations are great resources and the large-scale examples of greening are inspiring. Preserving our natural heritage requires nothing more than common sense and a commitment to creation care on a personal level and within local congregations. From hymn selection to printing bulletins on chlorine-free, post consumer recycled paper? there are hundreds of ways to rethink the experience of Christian faith in the Southeast. Look around your worship space, observe the stained glass windows and the water in the baptismal font and appreciate the ways that creation and themes of our natural heritage have always been at the core of our tradition. Gaze through the windows and into the dense thickets of Catawba Rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense) outside? perennially green, and a talisman for our greening efforts.
Like the native flora and fauna?Catholics, Pentecostals, Evangelical and mainline Protestants are part of the diversity of this bioregion. We do not deny ourselves a place in heaven by rejecting the earth and our unique place in the Southern landscape. On the contrary, when we nurture the places that sustain us, we touch faith. In the words of Brazilian theologian Ivana Gebara, ?Christian tradition often cut us off from our bodies, from our earthly dreams, and from our love of the earth. Today we are recovering our earthly citizenship. We are creatures of the earth, of the soil?and we live out of this terrestrial relatedness and feel an urgent need to rebuild it, to stop harming our own body, to stop exploiting and destroying it.? Through the faith that is the soul of our heritage, we can and must redeem our relationship with the natural wonders of the South.
Barnett, Tanya Marcovna. Greening Congregations Handbook: Storied, Ideas, and Resources for
Cultivatin Creation Awareness and Care in Your Congregation. Seattle: Earth Ministry,
Boff, Leonardo. Ecology & Liberation: A New Paradigm. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books,
Foltz, Richard C., Ed. Worldviews, Religions, & the Environment: A Global Anthology. Belmont,
CA: Wadworth/Thompson, 2003.
Gebara,, Ivone. Longing for Running Water: Ecofeminism and Liberation. Minneapolis: Augsburg
Fortress Press, 1999.
The Witness Magazine, ?What?s Powering General Convention? Wind! Interview with Sally
Bingham, 18 July 2003.
*?Back to the Garden,? is a line from the chorus of Joni Mitchell?s song Woodstock (covered by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young).