This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2007 Daniel Harper.
The first reading is titled “The Earthkeeper’s Call.” It comes from the African Initiated Churches in Zimbabwe. It tells in part how the African Initiated Churches teamed up with traditional religious groups to plant trees in Zimbabwe.
After chimurenga [the Zimbabwean revolution]
the earth was scorched and barren
and the Spirit of God urged prophets:
“Cry, the empty gullies, the dying plains –
clothe the naked land of the forebears!”
And hope returned.
Healing hands, young leaves of trees.
Heeding the call
churches of the poor:
red, white, blue, resplendent green
bearing holy staves, cardboard crowns.
Cursed descendants of Ham,
rejects of white mission,
lift the fallen banner of Spirit
where souls of people, tree souls meet.
I bare earth with axe and fire
rape forests without return
sledge-rip gullied meadows
turn earth’s water to trickling mire.
Confess and baptize… the land!
Oust the demons of neglect.
From Jordan emerge
with bonded hands, new earth community…
Proclaim new heaven
new earth in black Jerusalem…
where weary traveler
finds cool in shade
rustle of leaves
clear water of life.
The second reading is from the book “African Earthkeepers: Wholistic Interfaith Mission.” This passage tells about how some African Initiated Churches have used religious means to prevent environmental destruction. You should know that these particular Christian churches call evildoers “wizards,” in keeping with traditional African cultural understandings, and that as translations of Shona words, “wizard” and “wizardry” have nothing to do with Harry Potter or Gandalf.
“In the earthkeeping churches the nuances regarding wizardry are inevitably more varied and subtle than during the war [for Zimbabwean independence]. In contrast to the execution or torture of war traitors, wanton tree-fellers or poachers of wildlife will, upon prophetic detection, either be temporarily barred from taking the eucharist or, in the event of repeated transgression of the earthkeeper’s code, be excommunicated altogether. The key figures in the Association for African Earthkeeping Churches are only too aware of a common guilt which, in a sense, makes all of us ‘varoyi’ — death destroyers. To this they readily admit, which in itself is a sure sign of accepting collective responsibility for environmental restoration. There is a vast difference, however, between admitting guilt prior to committed participation in conservationist programmes, and deliberate deforestation or related destructive action in the face of a protective environmental code. It is this attitude of selfish environmental exploitation, regardless of the will of the community and the destruction caused to nature, which the prophets condemn as the evil of uroyi [wizardry], to be stamped out at all costs.” [p. 166]
This is the first in a series of three sermons for Black History Month. Although often Black History Month is a time to celebrate and explore the Black Diaspora, in today’s sermon I’m going to talk about contemporary Africa.
If you attend worship services here regularly, you will know by now that I have a special interest in ecological theology and spirituality. Nor I am alone in this interest: many other people in this congregation are also committed to ecological theology and spirituality. Speaking for myself, I find myself nodding in agreement with the report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released yesterday which says there is “unequivocal series of evidence [showing that] fossil fuel burning and land use change are affecting the climate on our planet.” I feel equally strongly that my religion has to address the realities of that environmental crisis; in fact, if my religion does not address the environmental crisis in real and meaningful ways, why, I’ll go find another religion that does.
I said our whole world is involved in this environmental crisis. It’s easy to forget that. It’s all too easy to concentrate on our environmental problems right here in North America, and ignore the rest of the world. It’s easy, for example, to conveniently forget that when sea levels start rising due to global warming, the country of Bangladesh is going to be much worse off than New Bedford — thousand, even millions of Bangldeshis could be affected by even a modest increase in sea levels. It’s easy to forget, for another example, that the air in some Chinese cities is so polluted that no birds can live in those cities, and that lung diseases are rampant among the human inhabitants of those cities. It’s easy to forget, for another example, that the scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are predicting an increase in the already serious droughts and desertification in sub-Sahara Africa.
It’s easy for us here in North America to forget that the environmental crisis is world-wide. In my more cynical moments, I sometimes think that predominantly white North America manages to ignore environmental crisis in countries where most of the people do not have white skin. In my less cynical moments, I sometimes wonder how these other places are coping with environmental crisis. Many places in the world are already deeper into the crisis than we are. Maybe we could learn from them.
A year ago, I happened to stumble across a book titled African Earthkeepers: Wholistic Interfaith Mission, by Marthinus L. Daneel. In this book, Daneel tells the story of an interfaith earthkeeping project that unites Christians and traditional African religious groups in Zimbabwe. The project didn’t happen overnight, and the story of this interfaith earthkeeping effort goes something like this:
Before the war for majority rule in Zimbabwe, ecological problems were already appearing. Overgrazing was common — putting too much livestock onto the land had the result that the plants the animals preferred to eat couldn’t reseed themselves, leaving bare soil. Soil erosion became common, and big gullies began to appear in the land where the soil washed away. Firewood had become scarce, more and more trees were cut for cooking fires, and forests began to shrink in size. All these trends were exacerbated by the fact that a tiny white minority controlled most of the land, which they farmed for profit, not to supply local food, selling much of their crops abroad.
Zimbabwe achieved independence from white minority rule in the mid-1980′s. Many of those who fought for black majority rule hoped that a redistribution of land would lead to greater equity through better ecological balance. This was not to be so, for the war for independence, and its aftermath, devastated the countryside. Widespread destruction of forests left the land vulnerable to erosion. People were evicted from where they had lived, and wound up squatting on common lands. On top of that, a severe drought lasted through most of the 1980′s up to 1992.
In his book, Marthinus Daneel says that it was bad enough to see the poorly-conceived settlement plans lead to further environmental destruction. But it was something else to see “callous profiteers” grab up forest lands and clear-cut the trees to sell as firewood for a quick profit, leaving the land exposed to soil erosion. And it was something else to see squatters pushed into the drainage area of Lake Kyle, where they quickly cut down large sections of the forest, leaving the bare soil to drain into the lake.
“Worst of all was the invasion of Mount Mugabe,” Daneel writes. Exploitative profiteers managed to grab land on the sacred mountain, cutting down the wild fruit trees that grew there, selling them for firewood. Not only was it ridiculous to destroy a food source just to make a quick profit; the people of the area, both Christians and those who practiced traditional religion, thought of the trees as sacred. “These greedy exploiters desecrated the holy grove,” writes Daneel. “Soon the mountain was dying.” [p.9]
Daneel and others watched the land being destroyed, and slowly a resolve grew in them to somehow stop the destruction. Daneel, who is Christian, tells about a key moment for him, when he was talking with one of the leaders of the traditional religion. Both of them felt the environmental crisis had a spiritual side to it. In Daneel’s Christian churches, there was a growing feeling that the church’s must become keepers of God’s creation. For their part, the traditional religious groups were upset by the destruction of the sacred groves, and they felt that unless something was done to fix the situation they could expect retribution from the spirit world. A key moment came when the two groups decided that they must work together — that these two religions, long at odds with one another, must put aside their differences and address the problem of environmental disaster together. It’s as if Unitarian Universalists teamed up with fundamentalist Christians become earthkeepers together.
Out of the collaboration of these two groups emerged the project of planting trees. Not only was planting trees a religious act, it was also pragmatic: planting trees meant stabilizing river banks; it meant planting fruit trees that can become food sources; it meant preventing soil erosion from overgrazed lands; it meant fighting back against desertification. Remember, too, that they couldn’t just raise money and drive over to the local nursery to buy saplings; there were no commercial nurseries; if they wanted trees they would have to create nurseries and grow the trees from seeds.
The traditionalists formed a group called AZTREC, the Association of Zimbabwean Traditional Ecologists, and the Christians formed a group called Association for African Earthkeeping Churches, or AAEC. Together, they declared the “war of the trees,” and set a goal of growing a million trees from seed every year, and then planting those trees where most needed. By the year 2000, the year Daneel wrote his book, they had almost reached that goal, surviving several serious droughts and overcoming serious financial and logistical challenges.
Remember that this was an interfaith religious movement. To me, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the religious movement is that both the Christians and the traditionalists declared that destroying trees was evil and not acceptable from a religious point of view. This is what we heard in the second reading this morning. The Christian churches would publicly expose persons who engaged in tree-cutting or environmental destruction, ask them to repent, and if the evildoers would not repent, they would be excluded from the eucharist, the central religious rite of the church; and if their actions continued after that, they would be excommunicated. On the traditionalist side, their leaders declared that destruction of trees would lead to the most dire consequences for individuals, and for the community. Traditional spirit mediums told the people that if environmental destruction continued, the spirits would continue to withhold the rains, and the severe drought would continue. Christian prophets denounced individual evildoers and profiteers. In short, both Christians and traditionalists declared that environmental destruction was evil, that environmental destruction was against religious principles, and that individuals who participated willfully in environmental destruction would be penalized by their religious communities.
I said at the beginning that perhaps we could learn from this African movement. Now the history of North American involvement in Africa has been generally paternalistic, especially here in the United States. When we think of Africans at all, which is not very often, we have a tendency to think: Those Africans, they are so poor and ill-educated, I’ll send a check to help out one of those poor starving African children I see in the advertisements. When our government sends aid money, the money usually comes with restrictions and advice, with an underlying assumption that Africans don’t know enough to handle their money, and that their governments are all corrupt anyway (as if we have no governmental corruption here in the United States, as if the lobbyists don’t have undue influence here in out own country). We tend to look at Africa paternalistically, and we think that we can offer help to them, but how on earth could such a poor continent help us out.
Well, I think the African idea of turning environmental destruction into a religious matter is an idea we could learn from. I think the African idea of interfaith cooperation to stop environmental destruction is an idea we could learn from. I even think the idea of declaring environmental destruction to be evil is an idea we could learn from. So I say we should listen to and learn from these Africans who plant trees.
First of all, let’s be a lot more explicit about turning environmental destruction into a religious matter. If we did that, we might come up with some interesting results. Then anything we do to stop environmental destruction could be seen as an act of prayer or meditation, a spiritual practice, which in turn could mean that whatever we do to stop environmental destruction is not a thankless chore but rather it is an act of spiritual beauty. If stopping environmental destruction becomes a religious matter, for some of us it will become easier to channel the whole force and power of mind, heart, and soul into that effort. If healing the earth becomes a religious matter, we might just find that we heal our own souls by healing the earth. Therefore, I say: let’s make earth healing, earthkeeping, a central part of our shared religion.
Second of all, let’s figure out a way to make earth healing and earthkeeping an interfaith activity. I believe interfaith cooperation should be especially important for Unitarian Universalists. We already have lots of expertise in this area — we have Christians, humanists, Jews, pagans, and Buddhists in our congregations as it is, we already know how to do interfaith dialogue at a very intimate level. We can translate religious terms on the fly. When a fundamentalist Christian says “creation care,” we can translate into secular humanist terms: “ecological sustainability” — into pagan terms: “honoring the Goddess” — and so on. In fact, I think we might borrow the two African terms, “earth healing” and “earthkeeping,” and perhaps use them to substitute for more theologically loaded terms. We Unitarian Universalists should be out there making contacts with other religious groups, and building interfaith cooperation for earth healing and earthkeeping.
Third, it’s time for us to declare that environmental destruction is evil. It is perhaps the greatest evil of our time. It is a religious evil. I know we hear too many comparisons to the evil of the Nazis and the Holocaust, but in this case I believe that comparison is apt; right now, environmental destruction is causing genocide as entire species are deliberately pushed towards extinction. It may cause further genocide as poor countries and communities of color are forced to bear the heaviest burden of environmental destruction.
We Unitarian Universalists tend to be reluctant to declare that something is evil. The term “evil” has been misused and misappropriated, especially in religious circles, and we don’t want to continue that misuse. We are even more reluctant to declare that a person is evil. We say that we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all persons. And from our Universalist heritage, we retain that old sense that God will save all souls, that there will be universal salvation, no matter what.
Yet I don’t think we can avoid calling the current environmental destruction “evil.” Huge numbers of people are going to die if we don’t do something about global climate change; and the people who will suffer most will be the peoples who have been historically marginalized: communities of color, the poor, those without political power. We have already seen this tendency at work in New Orleans, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. What happened to the poor neighborhoods in New Orleans was evil, insofar as the disaster continues to have worse consequence3s than it should have had. And we can’t avoid calling the current environmental destruction evil because we know that there is a small number people, of profiteers, who benefit from environmental destruction. The big oil companies have been actively working against public policy initiatives to reduce oil consumption so that we may reduce the production of greenhouse gasses — insofar as they have done so, the oil companies and their executives are doing evil.
Those are just three things we could learn from this African movement for earthkeeping. If we had more time this morning, I would love to explore at least two other things we could learn from them. I would love to talk about how earthkeeping and earth healing could be further integrated into our worship services — for example, those African Initiated Christian churches plant trees as a part of a worship service. And I would love to talk more about the significance of planting trees, how tree planting becomes both a pragmatic act, and an act of religious earth healing.
So it is that I believe we can learn something of critical importance from an African interfaith environmental group. I hope that you see, as I do, how we can learn from the mother continent of Africa. We can learn that earthkeeping and earth healing should be a religious task, not just a political task. We can learn that such a huge task requires us to work in close cooperation with other religious groups. And I believe we can learn practical, pragmatic ways of accomplishing earthkeeping.
So may our religious tradition learn from African religious traditions; so may we learn to become earthkeepers, and earth healers.