Vol 13, Num 10 :: 2014.05.16 — 2014.05.29
It may be that there is among you a root sprouting poisonous and bitter growth. All who hear the words of this oath and bless themselves, thinking in their hearts, “We are safe even though we go our own stubborn ways” (thus bringing disaster on moist and dry alike) — the Lord will be unwilling to pardon them, for the Lord’s anger and passion will smoke against them. All the curses written in this book will descend on them, and the Lord will blot out their names from under heaven…. The next generation, your children who rise up after you, as well as the foreigner who comes from a distant country, will see the devastation of that land and the afflictions with which the Lord has afflicted it — all its soil burned out by sulfur and salt, nothing planted, nothing sprouting, unable to support any vegetation… — they and indeed all the nations will wonder, “Why has the Lord done thus to this land? What caused this great display of anger?” They will conclude, “It is because they abandoned the covenant of the Lord, the God of their ancestors, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt.”
From Deuteronomy 29
Many of us have seen them from the air: shapes dotting the landscape, like crop circles in that they are round, and unlike crop circles in that they are barren. What used to be an irrigated field is now a scar, formed in a perfect sphere around the former center pivot and salinized to death by the salt deposits that the water left behind as temperate crops were ripped out of arid land like shrapnel out of wounded flesh. Can anyone make a case that this is what the Creator intended when humans were tasked with tending and keeping the earth?
If there is a dinner party conversation topic less popular than the destruction of the planet, it’s the book of Deuteronomy, but as we stand around munching on “baby” carrots and sipping wine from southern California, it might be the most important thing we could do to make the connection — this is one party worth pooping on. Even some of the most mainstream media outlets have been calling our attention to the idea that, with current rates of consumption and agricultural practices, we may only have 50 years’ worth of viable topsoil left on the planet. Under the compelling banner of “feeding the world,” we’ve stripped the soil, poisoned it, and, in many cases, simply let it blow away. As we’ve “[gone] our own stubborn ways,” we’ve broken faith with the very land that we were made from and for. If we Christians want to continue to read the Hebrew Bible and identify ourselves with the blessings of Israel, we must also reckon with what it means to identify ourselves with its curses, some of which seem to slice right through the years to the very centers of our twenty-first century homes.
The flipside of judgment is always an invitation into a new way of being. If the curse of hubris is sterile land, then what is the blessing of the covenant? It is a liberating relationship with the One who has sustained our extended family for generations, even to the first ancestors who foraged the fruit of the fecund earth and dwelled closely enough with their fellow creatures to give them names.
What would it look like if we decided to stop helplessly viewing the evidence of our destruction from the air, and started seeking the way of the covenant on the ground, in the places where we live? It might look a lot like what our friends over at Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries, among others, are calling watershed discipleship, or bioregional discipleship. From high up in the sky, a patchwork of ruined fields has a kind of strange, symmetrical beauty; on the earth, on foot, in the communities whose economies and social networks have been gutted, they look like death, like grief and regret and despair. These fields are not just the abstract casualties of progress, but the ecological manifestations of a collective nightmare come true on our streets and in our homes. Place-based disciples see these kinds of tragedies on the local level, cultivate communal rituals of lament and then go to work figuring out what’s next. How do we express our repentance, not just with our words, but with the cooperative action of our community, embracing once again the all-encompassing shalom that leaves no one and nothing behind? Some translations of the biblical text call this way “true religion.” Consider Isaiah 58:
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.
We can start repairing the breach by sharing food with the hungry human neighbors in our communities, but as we do so, we might just come to care about the hunger of other things as well, and see how they’re all related. The starved soil of a poisoned field produces no wheat to make the bread with which we feed a child; the wildly vibrant soil of a healthy field produces all manner of edible goodness to fill not only the stomach, but the heart and mind and imagination as well. You don’t have to dig very deeply into soil science to understand that happy, well-fed fungi and bacteria help make good food for humans – and, let’s be honest, we make good food for them as well.
So let it not be said of us any longer that we’ve abandoned the covenant of the Lord, but that we’ve remembered it, and honored it, and told the story over and over again not just in our churches, but in our kitchens, in our back yards, in our woodlands, in our parks, in our fields, and even in our parking lots and streets — streets not just for driving on, but for living in. Against the forces that would sterilize, sanitize, advertise and individualize: compost. Feed your leftovers to a bunch of worms and put their excrement in the soil under your tomato plants. Consider decay the best strategy for filthy richness. For this good work is our worship. This work is our resistance, and our liberation, and our hope for the world to come.