The Mountain, My Neighbor
By Anita Peebles
Originally preached on April 28th, 2015
So as you might have heard… last Wednesday, April 22, was Earth Day. Founded in 1970 and leading to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, Earth Day began in part as a desire to raise as much awareness about the deterioration of the natural environment as was raised by student demonstrations protesting the Vietnam War. Earth Day was born out of a struggle for justice in its many dimensions, and has seen worldwide movement after being founded in the United States.
As expected, my Facebook newsfeed was chock full of folks posting about climate activist art and 350.org and ways to abolish extractive industries and people planting trees and everything you could ever think of that is related to care for the Earth. The obligatory post quoting the Native American proverb “We don’t inherit this planet from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children” showed up about every other minute. Pictures of folk spending sunny days in their garden (highlighting the pastoral) and hiking huge mountain ranges and steep canyons (highlight the sublime) were ubiquitous. [But only for one day]
What was I doing on Earth Day? Not gardening or hiking or planting trees.
Naturally, having a Facebook argument with a dear friend, who also happens to be a climate change denier.
My friend had several points to make. 1. The Earth has had ice ages before when humans weren’t around–and who caused those climate changes?; 2. Scientists are grant-funded and keep claiming that climate change is real to keep the money flowing to think tanks that do climate research; 3. That ice melting being a problem doesn’t make sense because when you melt ice cubes in a glass of water your glass does not overflow; and 4. That it is ridiculous to think that humans can stop climate change.
As far as the first three go, I will let the majority of climate scientists who study greenhouse gases, geologists who know all about cyclical environmental disruptions, and chemists who understand that ice melting in a glass is different from ice melting on an always-changing and eroding Earth, explain for themselves why some of my friends’ ideas are a little less than informed and play into some dominant political ideologies.
But I want to focus in on the last one: “It is ridiculous to think that humans can stop climate change.”
I actually agree with this, but probably for different reasons than my friend wrote it.
It is ridiculous to think that humans can stop climate change because it is already happening. It is all around us. Agriculture is changing because of billions of bees that are dying–there go our pollinators that help us grow our food. Extreme weather events such as droughts and flood-inducing rains are becoming more common–symptoms of Earth’s HVAC system being out of whack. Rates of species extinction are happening at the fastest rate EVER (yes, in the whole entire history of our planet). The Great Barrier Reef has lost over half of its coral due to ocean temperatures rising causing coral bleaching–basically killing off the bacteria that cause the vibrant coral rainbows. Islands are becoming inundated with water as ocean levels rise, submerging exotic locales such as the Maldives, Fiji and, in recent news, the island chain of Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean. Environmentalist and founder of 350.org Bill McKibben suggests that we need a whole new name for this planet which we are inhabiting: “Earth” but with two As: “E-a-a-r-t-h,” because it is somewhat like the old planet, but irrevocably changed, and with an uncertain future.
However, all ego and desire to be right aside, there is something hugely wrong with my Facebook argument. It’s not about the science. It’s not about “believing” or “not believing” in climate change. It’s not even completely about politics and money at this point.
Communities all over this world, both human and nonhuman, are suffering, are being constantly harmed and degraded and pushed to the brink of what we recognize to be living well. Folks are suffering, even here in the United States of America and in Nashville, and we are beyond the point of no return. We are beyond the point of blaming each other and playing partisan politics. We have long passed by the possibility of keeping our tunnel vision focused on our own backyards, and are now faced with the reality that everything on this planet is interrelated and decisions and actions made on one side of the globe can be distinctly and intimately felt on the whole other side of the world.
The task ahead of us is this: We need to figure out a way to enhance each other’s flourishing in light of a changing climate. It’s here. It’s now. It’s up to us.
This is a daunting task, figuring out how to mitigate the destruction that is coming down the pipeline to a habitat near you, courtesy of years of industry and exploitation of resources and people and urbanization and a whole host of other causes. This is difficult, figuring out how to support communities who are losing their families, their food, and their sacred spaces because if the ocean rises any farther, their homeland will simply cease to exist.
As people of faith, we know that there are resources in our sacred texts about creation care.
Hear words from Genesis 1:
God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. God saw everything that was made and indeed, it was very good.”
The psalmists write:
“God makes springs pour water into the ravines; it flows between the mountains. They give water to all the beasts of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst. The birds of the air nest by the waters; they sing among the branches. God waters the mountains from God’s upper chambers; the earth is satisfied by the fruit of God’s work. God makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for humankind to cultivate-bringing forth food from the earth.” (Psalm 104:10-14)
From the prophet Isaiah: “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” (Isaiah 55:12)
We also know that there are texts that do not paint such a rosy view of the creation, instead focusing on a far-off (or perhaps close-at-hand) eschatology of the end times and Judgment Day. The books of Daniel, Isaiah, Joel, Revelations, and even the letters to the Thessalonians in the New Testament all speak of lakes of fire and God’s wrath against those who turn away from God, rendering them to an eternity of unspeakable pain. But don’t worry about your physical body or our degraded Earth, there will be a “new heaven and a new earth because the old earth had passed away and there was no sea.”
But where are the texts that speak to the need to build community, to restore us to each other and make new our relationships, to understand the power structures that are exploiting our neighbors and damaging our collective dignity?
I suggest we take another look at the parables.
I believe the parables of Jesus (short stories told with the purpose of being surprising and alarming; stories that not only flip over the status quo but shatter it completely) are underutilized in Christian Biblical discussions of environmental justice. Some folks believe that parables are rather literal, serving only to set examples of ideal social interactions between humans, which sadly keeps the interpretive reach of parables in the human realm alone.
However, if we widen our definition of environmental justice, we can understand how parables may be useful. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “Environmental Justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” I often like to talk about environmental justice as incorporating, and thus necessitating, all other justices, (as well as being very Biblical).
For example: Without economic justice, there is no environmental justice; Economic justice involves people being able to feed their families by working for a living wage; a case study would be the Coalition of Immolakee Workers in Florida, who are fighting to push major grocery stores like Publix to pay workers more for the tomatoes they pick.
Here’s another example: Without racial justice, there is no environmental justice; a case study would be the development of toxic waste sites and garbage dumps in neighborhoods with high populations of people of color, such as in Dixon, Tennessee, a mere 42 miles west of here. It even happens here in Nashville.
So, if environmental justice is concerned about the race, ethnicity, gender, country of origin, sexuality, income, health and education level of all people, then environmental justice is not just an ecological issue. It is also a social issue, concerned with the way that people separate themselves and assign value based on differences. The parables can help us with this.
Take the story of the Good Samaritan.
The frame story for Jesus’ telling of this parable is important. A lawyer (or rather, a scholar of the law) was trying to test Jesus to see if Jesus truly knew the Torah Law. He basically asks Jesus what kinds of deeds he needs to do to get into heaven. Jesus turns the question back on him, forcing the lawyer to respond with the correct Torah portion “Love the LORD your GOD with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus says, “Yep, you did a good job memorizing that…” and turns away, but the lawyer persists: “But WHO is my neighbor?”
So Jesus tells this story:
There is a person walking down the road minding his own business, by all accounts a Jew, based on the audience who was listening to Jesus tell the story. He falls into the hands of robbers, who beat the person violently, rob him of all his possessions, and leave him for dead in a ditch on the side of the road. A few people come along (members of the clergy, no less!), and instead of having mercy and saving the poor soul (as members of the audience listening would hope they would do), they cross over to the other side of the road, wanting nothing to do with this helpless figure. But then who should come along but a Samaritan, a member of a group that the Jews detested at that time because of a long history of violence and persecution. And what does the Samaritan do but upon seeing the lifeless figure in the ditch, lifts him up and puts him on his own donkey, takes him to an inn and pays for his care. No amount of social segregation based on race, class, birth sex, or gender identity could change the fact of the mercy shown by the Samaritan towards the Jew. Jesus, while telling this story, asks his audience “Who acted as a neighbor to the person in the ditch?” and they rightly reply “the Samaritan.” Thus the word neighbor is given an exalted status, is shown to mean a person who defies barriers with grace and mercy.
But notice, also, that while the lawyer in Jesus’ audience was trying to figure out who his neighbor was so he could decide how nice he had to be to get to heaven (do I have to walk his dog? invite his family over for dinner? clean his car?), Jesus turns the word neighbor around, giving it a dual meaning. Not only is the neighbor the object of the help, but it is also the person bestowing the help–there is a mutuality of being neighborly. Neighbors are in constant relationship, both giving and receiving at all times.
As are we with this planet we are riding on. As many of us here are Westernized USAmericans, we have been born into a culture based on capitalism, which is upheld by the over-utilization of natural resources and the exploitation of people all over the world. Our very way of being has been based on being able to take-take-take from the land…now we have to figure out how to give back to our home the Earth.
What if we treated the Earth as the Samaritan treated the person who lay beaten, violated and bleeding in the ditch? What if we looked around with our “neighbor goggles” on, and saw everything around us as being enlivened by the Spirit of the Divine, just as we ourselves are?
How would our lives be different if we lived seeing a mountain as our neighbor?
And so I’m not here today to school you on climate science, tell you the true meaning of the Good Samaritan, or make you feel bad about your lifestyle. (Really). I’m here to suggest a constructive way of reading our changing world that will open our eyes to environmental justice issues around us, and so that we might be able to think up a way to address these issues as a community.
Every time we demonstrate for fair wages for low-income workers, we are being good neighbors, we are fighting for environmental justice, we are building the beloved community of creation.
Every time we write letters and call our senators asking them to support free and reduced lunches for Tennessee students, many of whom are food insecure, we are being good neighbors, we are fighting for environmental justice, we are building the beloved community of creation.
Every time we paddle the Cumberland River or hike the Appalachian trail and stop and experience awe at the beauty and grandeur of creation (including cleaning up after ourselves), we are being good neighbors, we are fighting for environmental justice, we are building the beloved community of creation.
Every time we refuse to see the world in polarities, but instead see not only shades of grey but a technicolor universe of powerful and diverse people, we are being good neighbors, we are fighting for environmental justice, we are building the beloved community of creation.
Friends, our good Creator has blessed us with a beautiful Creation to care for, and, when we have not done such a good job of it, has used the words of the apostle Paul to remind us that “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now…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.” Let us go forth to be partners with God in the renewing of Creation, in the redemption of our human relationships so that we can enhance the flourishing of all life on this beautiful, this one and our only, Blue Planet.
Anita Peebles is a native of Michigan and has BAs in Religion and Environmental Studies from Oberlin College. She will begin her Master of Divinity studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School this coming fall, focusing on practical ecotheology and children’s spirituality.