This weekend, many churches will celebrate Earth Day. They’ll sing hymns like “This is My Father’s World” and “For the Beauty of the Earth.”
When I was a pastor I would place a pot of soil, a watering can and a basket of seeds on the altar and invite children to help bless them. Congregants brought their garden tools and gloves, wheelbarrows and even tractors to church for a blessing. Everyone would choose a packet of seeds and depart with the promise of spring, new life, and the satisfaction that we had done our part for God’s Creation.
These rituals for Creation-care are right and salutary. But this year, they won’t be enough.
The time for feel-good “green” hymns and ecological tokenism is over.
Not when the Trump administration has installed the most anti-environmental cabinet in our nation’s history. Not after Congress voted to roll back crucial environmental regulations. Not when the number of children diagnosed with cancer has risen 40 percent over the past 16 years due to air pollution and pesticides. Not when the fossil-fuel industry is poisoning the air, water and land.
And not when people like Waldomiro Costa Pereira are being murdered for trying to protect their land from ravenous corporations and wealthy landowners. Brazil saw 61 killings of land-rights campaigners last year; 150 since 2012. Pereira was standing up against elite landowners on behalf of poor farmers. He was murdered on March 20, the first day of spring.
Killing environmental activists in Latin America has been happening for nearly 30 years. But there’s a new layer of urgency with the exacerbation of climate change and the increased desperation of people fighting for their communities and their very lives.
We need more than pretty flowers. We need to tell the ugly truth: there is a life-and-death struggle against corrupt governments, companies and criminal gangs that are seizing land in order to meet the demand for minerals, timber, and fossil fuels. We in developed countries may condemn these barbaric acts. But the demand for these products comes from wealthy nations, particularly the United States. Not to mention the blood-tinged waves of immigrants fleeing lands devastated by climate change, for which we share a huge responsibility.
When people are dying to protect the Earth and indigenous communities, little packets of seeds simply are not enough. My term for what is happening is “eco-crucifixion,” which describes environmental devastation in terms of Jesus’ death. I see a direct parallel to what is happening to Earth, its most vulnerable people and those who defend them.
Since its earliest days, the Christian church has honored the martyrs who died for their faith. Certain days of the church year are dedicated to their memories, and prayers are offered in thanksgiving for their witness.
I move that Earth Day be a time to venerate the Earth martyrs. As models of courage for protecting the sacredness of Earth and indigenous communities, they embody the virtues of integrity and radical compassion, without which the human species will dwindle to extinction. These martyrs need to be mourned and honored for their faithful work and witness.
Sister Dorothy Mae Stang, a nun murdered in 2005 for her work to protect impoverished Brazilian communities in the Amazon, is already venerated by the Roman Catholic Church. She and her fellow eco-martyrs exemplify the sacrificial love of God, who steadfastly proclaims that those most vulnerable – including Earth itself – are worth dying for.
They also remind me that eco-crucifixion is followed eventually by eco-resurrection. So we must also tell stories of places like El Salvador which banned gold mining in favor of protecting its fragile water systems. And Mexico which recently moved to protect 160 million acres for environmental conservation.
On Earth Day, let’s pick up more than seed packets. Let’s take up the cross.
Leah D. Schade, assistant professor of preaching and worship at Lexington Theological Seminary, is the author of “Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit” (Chalice Press, 2015).