Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (1978)
Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.
In 1964, the contemplative prophet Thomas Merton invited leaders like John Howard Yoder, A.J. Muste and the Berrigan brothers to the Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky to discuss "The Spiritual Roots of Protest." This conference took place at a watershed moment, at the intense intersection of what King called the "giant triplets:" militarism, materialism and racism. Vietnam was escalating, civil rights protests were intensifying and poverty locked far too many "in an airtight cage." 40 years later, our world is once again at a watershed moment. This watershed moment longs for an authentic Christian response.
A group of three dozen leaders from Portland to Philly gathered in Southern California's Ventura River Watershed last weekend to catch the vision of what Ched Myers called "a hand-made, home-based, cooperative” brand of Christian community. These disciples, from ages 27 to 72, represented all sorts of communities from all sorts of Christian denominations, bound together by a deep longing for a theological engagement with the Land that connects us all.
Myers, a long-time activist and Bible scholar, began this 13th Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries Institute ("Coming into the Watershed: Permaculture, Ecoliteracy, & Bioregional Discipleship") with a few important disclaimers: "This is not a conference for churchly entertainment” nor is "this just tree-hugger discipleship." The eco-faith gathering was, instead, an apocalypsis: the unveiling of a dire situation that demands a response ("response-ability") from people of faith and conscience. We must not waver, Myers exhorted, from a critical engagement with the central crime of humanity (since the birth of civilization and hyper-eccelerated since the invasion of 1492): the dispossessing people of place—-all for the profit motive.
Living in the hangover of the virtual eradication of indigenous people and their customs all over the globe, we groan through symptoms of mass unemployment, polluted and wasted sources of water, hunger & starvation, unacknowledged racism, sexism & homophobia, widening income inequality, the demonization of the common good, violent weather patterns and skyrocketing cancer rates (just to name a few).
Myers' thesis was that the start of global healing (a cosmic salvation) must be rooted in a radical (Latin for "root") commitment to our watershed, a "region governed by Nature, not legislature." Thus Watershed Discipleship: an intentional double-entendre referring to this watershed moment (a crisis of global proportions) and a dignified and disciplined movement centered on the oldest way of understanding place: the watershed. This Moment requires a Movement.
As it turns out, when we reject political borders created by Empire, we can better examine the spiritually and physically sustainable ways of the indigenous who have always relied on their local Source of water for their survival & well-being. No water, no life. Yet our creeks are being drained and/or polluted while corporate media obsess on federal government shutdowns, pennant races, celebrity meltdowns and red state vs. blue state cultural distinctions.
Myers was joined by his partner Elaine Enns, a Canadian veteran practitioner of restorative justice, and by Chris Grataski, a specialist in permaculture design, particularly from a Christian theological perspective.
Grataski, a New Jersey native, posited that every space we inhabit is shaped by theological, social and ecological assumptions which have led to the present crisis we are currently confronted with. He lamented that humanity can and does imagine just about anything (video games, smartphones, nuclear weapons) except for a world outside of capitalism. But, behold, we are not destined for catastrophe. In fact, the hope of the world relies on this kind of prophetic imagination, following the biblical Script's call for a people defined by manna & mercy, not hoarding & hubris.
Grataski homed in on the fundamentally flawed mentality handed down by civilization, citing Duke Divinity School's Willie Jennings who has narrated the white man's capitalist delusion as a “shift from what land they belonged to towards what land belongs to them." Our own conversion of the imagination, from ego-centric to eco-centric, starts with a deep eco-literacy characterized by an itimacy with the place we inhabit. It involves what Grataski calls an animality: truly experiencing the interdependency of all Nature as the human animal we are, surviving and thriving only due to the generous Presence of the flora and fauna all around us.
Enns used victim-offender analysis to engage with the exploitation of the Earth and her native children. The healing and reconciliation of this primal offense must begin with the humble acknowledgement that we are all indicted, especially the Church which has blessed the extraction of precious resources, the exploitation of "the least of these," and the forced conversion of indigenous peoples. The rape and pillage of the Land and her people (for profit) is a multi-faceted offense that is coming back to haunt humanity, echoing the cry of the 12th century German mystic Hildegard of Bingen:
All of creation God gives to humankind to use. If this privilege is misused, God’s justice permits creation to punish humanity.
Or, from the late Japanese farmer-philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka:
If we throw Mother Nature out the window, she comes back in the door with a pitchfork.
Yet we are all victims as well. We subconsciously carry the grief of our destroyed watershed. We, too, have been displaced by a consumer capitalism seeking to commodify everything in its wake. The process of re-placement is a three-step journey of the heart, mind and body:
1. We won’t save places we don’t love.
2. We won’t love places we don’t know.
3. We don’t know places we haven’t learned.
Enns shared from her own historical work on Mennonite communities that displaced indigenous people of the Ukraine (beginning with the reign of Catherine the Great) and Canada (after the Russian Revolution). The Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission has pioneered courageous experiments for the restorative healing of First Nations victims and settler offenders. While the federal governments of Canada and the United States live in denial, refusing to officially recognize both historic and contemporary abuse of native peoples, people of faith and conscience can organize a whole movement of restorative justice within respective watershed contexts everywhere.
For all those looking for biblical legitimacy, Myers scripted a watershed discipleship from Genesis to Revelation. Key texts included Genesis 2, I Kings 17-22, John 1, Romans 8 and Revelation 22. Highlighting the theological theme of creation in Genesis 2:7, Myers got deductive:
We are birthed from the earth.
We can only be truly human in relationship to the earth.
We can only be connected to the earth if we are committed to our place.
But interweaving creation with incarnation is a vital exercise in this movement away from escapist and empire theologies. In the first chapter of the Gospel of John, the Word present at creation (1:1) comes into our watershed and pitches a tent among us (1:14; Revelation 21:3). We are talking about a God intimately connected to us and the uniqueness of our bio-regions. This God, like the original People of the earth, makes a dwelling out of the flora and fauna of that specific place called home.
A legitimate soteriology shifts away from our souls towards the rehydration of our watershed. It confronts narcissistic salvation narratives and seeks to heal all of creation. Ultimately, the entire created order has been "groaning" (Romans 8:18-25) under the curse of civilization for thousands of years, "waiting patiently but anxiously" for the apocalypse: a conversion of human beings who are awakened to the curse of civilization and are commissioned to save their watershed. This ministry is energized and inspired by a Love that the Creator has for all of creation that cannot be hijacked by all those hoarders of power, possessions & prestige--including corporations, governments or any other powerful organizations, including churches (Romans 8:38-39).
Myers called on participants to embrace Elijah (I Kings 17-22) as the mascot of the Watershed Discipleship Movement. This "troubler of Israel" confronted empire by invoking drought. He survived by trusting in the provision of his watershed, seeking shelter in caves, fed by ravens, passing on this lifestyle of simple living to feed the widow and her family.
Elijah doesn't live a long life (most prophets don't!), but is taken up into heaven by Mother Nature in a whirlwind. The Christian Old Testament ends with Malachi's prophetic utterance that Elijah will return to "turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse" (Malachi 4:6). The salvation of the world depends on converted imaginations. This can only happen with prophetic action. The haunting Elijah cycle becomes embodied in that other "troubler of Israel" Jesus of Nazareth who passes along the prophetic way to all his followers.
Watershed discipleship is committed to an ecclesiology that organizes a network of alternative Christian communities committed to Something bigger than big buildings and butts in the seats. These communities will pledge to the fierce energy of indigenous people which always comes from a struggle for something--for the struggle of a place! It is a different kind of energy than most communities committed to activism and dissent. Watershed discipleship communities primarily ask questions in the positive:
What am I struggling for?
What am I saying "Yes" to?
What would I be willing to die for?
This prompts us all to ask very basic questions about our watershed:
-What time is sunset today?
-When you flush, where do the solids go? What happens to the waste water?
-Can you name five native edible plants in your watershed?
-Where does your garbage go?
-Who uses the paper/plastic you recycle from your neighborhood?
-Can you name five birds that live in your watershed?
-After the rain runs off your roof, where does it go?
These questions lead to answers that lead to more questions that lead to a deeper knowledge and love for place. Only this can lead to a biblical understanding of salvation.
Watershed discipleship communities resolutely reject apathy, indifference, resignation and cynicism. A re-placement theology dedicated to the watershed will ultimately take a full commitment to education, advocacy and an openness to a full-fledged re-orientation of our relationships to Nature. These daring communities will be committed to permaculture: designing human habitats that are characterized by ecological and social flourishing. This intentional design looks out for what is the very best for everyone and every living thing: from the homeless to the halibut, from the
We've come upon a watershed moment. The curse of civilization plagues us. As King lamented 40 years ago, we continue to live in a situation where "machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people." We need a conversion of the imagination. It starts with our watershed.