Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Desecration or Sacrament
distributed 4/19/19 - ©2019

Last night, Christian congregations around the world observed Maundy Thursday, and commemorated the Last Supper of Jesus. It is one of the foundational events of the Christian faith.

Jesus, gathered with his closest friends for the Passover meal, claims bread and wine as symbols of his ministry. For those of us who are part of Christian communities, communion is the one recurring sacrament.

Through Lent this year, some wise and haunting words from Wendell Berry often have come to my mind, joining the theology of Eucharistic liturgy with the realities of Earth's distress. At the end of his book, "The Gift of Good Land," Berry wrote:

To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of creation. When we do it knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, destructively, it is a desecration.

I keep coming back to Berry's words, I think, because of the craving I feel for a sacramental way of life in these painful and distressing times. Beyond a to-do list of right and wrong actions, I know the need to address intentions and desires.

On this Good Friday, I invite you to join me in prayerful reflections on each of Wendell Berry's three sentences -- in a different order.
 

To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of creation.
I appreciate this call to confession. There is no way for any of us to exist in this world without using resources, without causing impacts. However carefully and sustainably we seek to live, we must drink water. We must eat, drawing energy and nutrients from plants, and possibly animals. We will create waste. In that, we are like all animals, who cannot survive without somehow extracting life from other living things.

As humans in modern societies, the range and scale of our impacts are greater than those of other animals. We cook food and heat homes. We till the soil and mine minerals. We use machines to travel. There are ways to reduce the footprint, but we cannot make it disappear. We depend on creation for water, food, energy, waste processing, even the air we breathe.

There is no way to pretend that we -- as individuals or as a species -- are separate from the rest of the natural world. As I've said often in recent months, "the world is inherently relational," and our participation in those relationships brings damage, as well as providing life.

Both confession and gratitude are necessary responses as we break the body and shed the blood of creation.
 

When we do it ignorantly, greedily, destructively, it is a desecration.
My soul feels the agony of desecration. I am aware of the times of my own desecration, and I am painfully aware of the destruction that is all around us.

With greed, or selfishness, or a sense of privilege, I take more from the world than I need. I am far from saintly when I participate in practices like the horrendous treatment of chickens raised for the eggs and the meat that I eat. I drive when I could walk or stay home. Our house is warmer in the winter than it needs to be. And I am unaware of much about how my way of life ripples out to impact other people, today and into the future. I don't comprehend how much I touch the world around me. Yes, I am part of the desecration.

I wrestle every day, though, with the desecration that is inherent within our society. Our ignorance is carefully cultivated when food processing and packaging does not show us how palm oil devastates orangutan habitat, or when we never need to think about the source of the natural gas that is piped unobtrusively into our homes. Our greed is cultivated by incessant advertising enticing us to have and to use more of everything.

Most of all, I lament the travesty of knowing destruction. The United States government now proudly claims a policy of "energy dominance" -- intentionally working to increase the production of fossil fuels. Corporations aggressively market insecticides even when bee populations are collapsing and scientists name an escalating insect apocalypse. "Single use plastics" proliferate in throw-away bottles and bags and packaging, even as the threat of plastic pollution becomes well known.

On Good Friday, I mourn the desecration of God's creation -- the knowing and unknowing destruction of this marvelous and interdependent world.
 

When we do it knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament.
Here is the hope. Not that we can have no impact on the world, but that we can live in relationships that are self-aware, compassionate, careful and rooted in gratitude.

A sacrament, as the short-hand definition tells us, is "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace." When we eat bread and wine in the context of worship, it is a sacrament. When we consume them at a cocktail party, they're just food. Awareness and intention do make a difference.

Jake Meador reflected on Berry's language: "reverent breaking is not just about discrete actions, but about the kind of people we are. ... And so the real question with Berry isn't so much how we can break creation reverently, but how we can become the sort of people capable of breaking creation reverently."

I once had the privilege of witnessing the winter Deer Dance at Taos Pueblo in northern New Mexico. In an annual ritual, members of the community acted out the hunting of deer. Several times, the dancers portraying the deer escaped to safety, and that was celebrated. When the symbolic deer was killed, there was an offering of reverent thanks for the life of that creature -- a thanksgiving that was repeated during actual hunts.

Pueblo rituals draw the community into knowing, loving and reverent relationship with the broader world. That cultural awareness, that deep worldview, nurtures a sacramental way of life which will minimize behaviors and structures of damage and destruction.

As individuals, we can try to bring that sacramental approach into our lives. It will help us to be more responsible and more joyous as we live lightly and intentionally.

Berry brings truth, though, with his non-individual language. It is about how "we" live and act, and the intentions that "we" bring to the world. Hope and healing will be found most fully when our culture is transformed. We will have an impact on the world, but will our culture lead us toward desecration or sacrament? Sacrament, here, is not a matter of Christian doctrine, but of universal grace.

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It is Good Friday afternoon. I feel the weight and the agony of this day -- this horrible day of the Christian calendar, and this day of the routine desecration of God's creation.

On this afternoon, I am strengthened by Wendell Berry's transformative hope. Desecration is not the only option. We can find mindsets and attitudes that draw us into right relationship.

Undergirding our search for clean technologies and the struggle for good public policies, there must be a strong and centering attitude. A change in worldview and self-identity can lead us in becoming "the sort of people capable of breaking creation reverently."

As we seek to turn our society away from desecration, may we cultivate in ourselves and our communities the spiritual gifts of knowledge, awareness, love and compassion.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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