Tomorrow marks the beginning of Holy Week for Christians. On Palm Sunday (sometimes called Passion Sunday), many churches across the nation will use sustainably-harvested palms in their worship services.
It is commendable that more congregations are exercising environmental responsibility when it comes to liturgical practices. But as our planet’s ecosystems are under siege by economic and political forces, Christians must go beyond “green” palms. It’s important to make the connection between Jesus’ crucifixion and the “eco-crucifixion: happening today.
Author Mark I. Wallace makes the ecological connection to Christ’s crucifixion by seeing Earth as the embodiment of God’s Spirit. Our planet is suffering from the climate crisis, deforestation, species extinction, catastrophic storms and pollution. This “ecological sin” results in God suffering as well. The crucifixion of Jesus happened once in history. But the crucifixion of Earth is carried out daily.
Are Christians willing to recognize this truth? Are clergy willing to proclaim this eco-crucifixion? Some churches avoid the entire Holy Week journey altogether. They have Palm Sunday but skip over all the dark, ugly parts of the Good Friday story. They go right from palms to Easter lilies.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer would call this “cheap grace.” Avoiding the cross provides no means for a change of heart, a transformed attitude, repentance, or a decision to lead a life of reconciliation. Going to the cross is exactly what is needed to heal our relationships with each other and with God’s creation.
Wallace warns of a “permanent trauma to the divine life itself” happening through the crucifixion-like ecocide that humans continually inflict upon Earth and its inhabitants. He argues that we need “a conversion of the heart to a vision of a green earth, where all persons live in harmony with their natural environments.” Such a vision can persuade us to work toward an ethic of justice and love toward all of God’s creatures.
Let’s not forget that what was done to Jesus is still done to people and to our planet. The sacred land of Native Americans continues to be sacrificed to ongoing colonization. Communities of color continue to be targeted for polluting industries and toxic landfills. Island nations such as Puerto Rico are raked by catastrophic storms super-charged by climate change and then given little help in recovery. Coral reefs worldwide are bleaching and dying. Hundreds of populations of plants, fish, and animals have been lost in recent decades in what scientists are calling a “biological annihilation.”
And right here in Kentucky, coal miners suffer and die of black lung disease — the sacrifice necessary for a fossil-fuel economy.
The pain is real, and the voices of those who suffer need to be heard. We must speak of this in our worship services so that we do not become numb and apathetic. If we cut ourselves off from others’ pain, the cycle of violence will only continue.
There is one more reason why Christians tell this story of Jesus’ Passion: To remember what God is doing in response to this crucifixion. God is saying: This must stop. God does not condone violence committed against people or God’s creation. God submits to it, absorbs it and lives right through it, in order to be in solidarity with those who suffer. And then God resurrects the condemned one, the betrayed one, the crucified one, in order to show that this act of violence is not the last word.
I have to believe that God, who has brought us through 14 billion years of time, will not abandon us now. That somehow God is working through even this human-made catastrophe of global climate change, deforestation, massive extinction and toxic poisoning to find a way for life to push through once again. So I make the choice to believe — and act on my firm belief — that on the other side eco-crucifixion, there is an “eco-resurrection.” The rituals of Holy Week remind us that God’s intention is to transform the worst of humanity into the very best that God intends for people, for our planet, and for our future.
Leah D. Schade teaches at Lexington Theological Seminary and is author of “Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit.” Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.