For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
“Before you finish eating your breakfast this morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world. This is the way our universe is structured….We aren’t going to have peace on earth until we recognize the basic fact of the interrelated structure of reality.”
~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
For several summers while I was living in New York, I volunteered in various capacities at a camp in the Adirondacks called Camp Fowler. It’s a Christian camp, but we sometimes describe it as not so much a “come to Jesus” camp as a “Jesus smiles when you compost” camp. We have solar panels and a garden, where we grow a lot of the vegetables we eat over the course of the summer. All of the recently installed toilets are the composting variety. A couple of the cabins have electricity generated by bicycles. We don’t allow cell phones and we don’t have motorized boats. After meals, we sometimes sing a song about garbage:
“Garbage isn’t garbage til you mix it all together;
Garbage isn’t garbage til you throw it away.
So separate your paper, plastic, compost, glass, and metal,
And then you get to use them all another day.”
But care for nature is more than a hippy/hipster environmental consciousness up there, because the daily details of our lives are deeply affected by nature. It rains and our activities shift, or at least our clothing does. We’re never sure if we’ll be having a beach party or huddling around the fireplace in the lodge. We listen for the distant roll of thunder, which calls us in from canoeing and sailing around the lake. We try futilely to fend off bites from mosquitos and black flies; we watch for bears, who also love our compost. The foliage overtakes our trails every year and we sometimes end up bushwhacking with kayaks on our shoulders. We are tied to the land and the air and the water there, and it is obvious. We see where our food comes from. We know where our discarded items go. If you see trash on the ground around camp, you know it’s not supposed to be there – so you might even pick it up. Creation is so alive around us and so intimately related to everything we do that it’s almost personified. And it’s easy to see God, wild, beautiful, unpredictable, and breathtaking, in creation.
But then after camp, a lot of us go back to cities and suburbs, where nature is a little more distant. Our grass and trees are purposeful, placed by human hands. Weather doesn’t have such an impact on what we do, because we have cars and insulated buildings, and most of what we do is inside anyway; if weather is bad, you just avoid it. Our food comes in packages from the store and it is possible for us to never give a thought to what it was before that; our garbage disappears on a truck or down a chute, and then it is safely out of our minds, regardless of where it may go. Water, food, clothing, all the little possessions of our lives, appear and disappear with little consequence.
But that’s what it means for us to live the “good life” in the western developed world. The very definition of the good life in our culture is that we have the means to not worry about where the things we use come from, or where they go when we discard them. Even when we are “out in nature” and feeling more connected, it is by our own choice, and we are usually in the most pleasant, beautiful places. Which isn’t a problem in itself, but what happens over time is that we start to believe that nature is there for us – for our use, for our choosing. We become utilitarian in the way we see the creation, and we forget that it may have a life and purpose beyond how it can serve us. And it becomes difficult to see God in this creation that we have mediated for our own comfort and convenience.
Today we are continuing to build our rainbow. Last week we began with the red and orange of Pentecost, and talked about the Spirit being poured out on all people, especially those you might least expect. But today as we add yellow and green to the rainbow, I want to suggest that the Spirit is not limited to the human world, but rather that the Spirit enlivens and weaves together all of creation. All of creation is embraced by a love that never ceases.
I suspect that when I say things like that, I’m preaching to the choir. Many of you were at the climate march yesterday; you already participate in individual and collective efforts to protect the environment. And yet, simply by living where we do, a particular system inhabits our lives by virtue of the economic policies, practices, institutions, and assumptions that shape how we live. Opting out is…well, I won’t say it’s impossible, but I will say that I’ve known some people who try really hard, but remain meshed in the larger culture and economic structure. And it’s hard, because we’re the ones who mostly benefit from the current economic and ecological arrangement, at least in so far as it affects our daily life now. It’s those who can least bear it, the poorest of people, the most vulnerable of species, the delicate, voiceless ecosystems, that bear the brunt of our “good life.”
I want to share with you a story from a book that was instrumental in shaping how I see our relationship to creation, and the relationship between economic and ecological justice: Resisting Structural Evil by Cynthia Moe-Lobeda.
Alma Bandalan and her three children used to live in a simple hut near the shore of Mactan Island in the Philippines. Alma’s husband, Irwin, would head out every morning to catch fish, which provided a little money when he sold them in the local market, and food for the family, along with fruit and vegetables they grew. But then the resorts started to move in and take over the beach front, and the Bandalan family and all their neighbors were forcibly removed to make room for the resorts.
Irwin took a job in the nearest city, and Alma moved the children into the city as well, but without the ocean to provide fish or the garden plot to grow vegetables, or a roof under which to sleep, they became desperate. Alma found a job in a recycling center on the outskirts of town, and the children came with her to search the piles of scrap metal for parts they could sell. Alma worked inside, stripping down used appliances, burning plastics and dipping materials in vats of acid.
Soon Alma began to experience skin and respiratory problems. The children inhaled toxic fumes all day, and began to show signs of neurodevelopmental disorders. But their choice was destitution or poison. They chose poison but still ended up with a fair amount of destitution, being paid less than a dollar a day to dismantle the scrap that came from the United States on ships. The containers were labeled “scrap metal” and “material for recycling,” and the officials mostly turned a blind eye when their contents included hazardous waste.
Meanwhile, back in the US, a college student named Jason inherited a blender from his apartment’s previous residents, but it had started acting up, and the scrolling feature on his iPad had stopped working. The blender was four years old, but the iPad was only a year old. Jason looked into repair options, but they all seemed to be more expensive than just replacing the devices. Everyone agreed that he should just buy new ones. Jason’s mom told him to go ahead; after all, she was looking forward to a kitchen remodel with all new appliances and a flatscreen TV on the wall. So Jason thought about all the electronics that occupied his life: stereos, electric toothbrushes, power tools, video game consoles, lamps, refrigerators, chargers, printers, air conditioners, computers, laundry machines…
Jason took his mom’s advice and his life went back to normal, but with some shiny new devices. He threw the blender in the trash, and took the iPad to the recycling, hoping it would count as scrap metal.
Now, my point in telling you this story is not to make you feel guilty about the appliances you’ve discarded, or to paralyze you with the enormity of problems that happen far out of our reach. My point is to remind us that the way we experience our connection to the global community and to God’s creation is much different than the way that vulnerable people, animals, plants, and ecosystems experience that connection. The system that we have has been designed and maintained to give us economic benefit, comfort, and convenience. But it comes at great cost for parts of God’s beloved world that we don’t even see.
The great challenge for us is mindfulness – to stay aware of our interconnectedness with creation, even though things appear and disappear seemingly without consequence. To remain conscious of the impact of our actions on people far away whose well-being doesn’t directly affect us. To stay awake to the damage happening to water supplies and air quality, even when it’s not the water we drink or the air we breathe. To hear the groaning of creation.
And when we are mindful of what is happening, the next step is to actively reject the structural evil of ecological destruction and economic injustice. In 2004, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches met in Accra, Ghana. They stood in a building where white Christians had once held worship services on the second floor while the slaves they were about to sell suffered literally beneath their feet. And they acknowledged that this was not merely a sin of the past:
- that slavery has not ended while human trafficking, sweatshops, and unfairly paid labor continue;
- That injustice grows when humans use other humans or other parts of creation merely as objects that advance our own ends;
- That we continue to participate in a system that subjugates the vulnerable for the benefit of the powerful.
And so they wrote the Confession of Accra, which links economic disparity and ecological degradation, and calls the Church to reject any world order that excludes the poor, the vulnerable, and the whole of creation from fullness of life. It’s a challenging document, especially for affluent Western people. It says things like, “We reject the culture of rampant consumerism and the competitive greed and selfishness of the neoliberal global market system,” and “We reject the unregulated accumulation of wealth and limitless growth that has cost the lives of millions and destroyed much of God’s creation.” It’s not a comfortable confession, and you might imagine how well it would go over with our current federal administration. And yet, the Accra Confession maintains, “We believe that God calls us to hear the cries of the poor and the groaning of creation, and to follow the public mission of Jesus Christ who came so that all may have life and have it in fullness.”
I don’t know about you, but I’m sometimes overwhelmed by the vast economic disparity in the world and the extent of the ecological destruction that has already occurred, much of which can’t be reversed. But then I am reminded of the role of resurrection in my faith, not just the resurrection of Jesus, but this overarching idea that God is always bringing life out of death. Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, in the same book I quoted earlier, says “Life arising from death and destruction is Earth’s song of hope and God’s song of love.”
I particularly appreciate this quote because, although I cannot fix the world, I can join a song. People of God, this is a song we can sing. Will you sing with me?