The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
We All Suffer Together
One week ago, the tectonic plates just east of Japan lurched past each other, doing again what they have done periodically for millions and millions of years. The ground shook, the waves surged, and disaster swept across an island whose people have learned to prepare well for earthquakes.
Even in Japan, the massive 9.0 shock was more than enough to strip away the thin veneer of technology and culture that allows us to imagine that humans are somehow separate from nature. In the news that we have followed so closely this week, we find vivid evidence of a truth about God's creation: humans are part of the natural world.
It is not just that humans are powerless to stop an earthquake and tsunami. More profoundly, the changes wrought by those enormous geological forces reveal the essential creatureliness of people. When roads buckle, stores collapse and utility pipes break, our basic biological need for food and water is revealed. Hunger and thirst become very real matters of survival. Winter cold might have been inconvenient before, but it now presents great danger to those who are without shelter and extra clothes.
In the presence of such devastation, people are just like all the other creatures -- dogs and cats, livestock, birds, and even turtles, fish and coral. All animals are equally susceptible to being battered and broken by pounding water and falling objects. All struggle just to survive when their communities are upended.
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In his novel, Anthill, biologist E.O. Wilson writes of his central character's growing awareness: "In time he understood that nature was not something outside the human world. The reverse is true. Nature is the real world, and humanity exists on islands within it."
Ethicist Larry Rasmussen has written that the children of industrialized civilizations are finally rediscovering "what most other civilizations have long known: the fate of mountains, rivers and societies is a single fate; nature is not what is around us or where we live, but the reason we are alive at all; nature is the reason each and every society and culture that ever existed did so."
The modern English language makes it hard for us to recognize the truth that humans are part of nature. In common usage, our words of "nature" and "the environment" speak about that which is other-than-human. Our words do not tell the truth when they reflect a worldview of separation. Our language lies when it tells us that humans exist outside of, or even above, nature.
Our language -- and the philosophies, worldviews and religion that lie behind it -- makes it hard for us to say, or even imagine, that we are part and parcel of the created order. But that is the truth about God's creation. We humans are creatures, too.
Rasmussen challenges us to find a new mind-set, a new way of thinking. "We could learn to speak, for example, not of humanity and nature, but of humans in and as nature. ... We could acknowledge that humans never rise above nature, never transcend it."
Biblical Hebrew does a better job of expressing this truth about God's creation. It speaks of "the heavens and the earth" to express the totality of all things. To describe the earth community, Hebrew can run through a catalogue of various kinds of creatures -- people, fish, birds, "cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind" (Genesis 1:24) -- but there is no way for that language to talk collectively about "all the stuff other than the humans." Hebrew has no word for "nature" as an other-than-human entity. That language can't conceptualize humans as being separate from the rest of creation.
We are all creatures. We are all part of the one creation. We are all in it together. Hebrew does a better job than English of expressing that factual reality.
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul developed a metaphor of the body as an interdependent whole. What he wrote about the church applies just as well to the whole creation. "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you,' nor again the head to the feet, 'I have no need of you.' ... If one member suffers, all suffer together with it."
When we do not tell the truth about God's creation, when we falsely believe that humans are separate from the rest of nature, we fall into the error that Paul describes. We seek to enrich and empower one part, while breaking down the whole. We see those other parts of creation as expendable, or as resources to use for our own benefit. We do not see the unity and interdependence that is inherent to the creation. And we all suffer together.
Telling the truth about the unity of creation is essential if humans are to find ways of living sustainably on this planet.
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 * Home Page: www.eco-justice.org
Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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