Theologies of the Land

Note:  Amidst this series on an environmental theology of “Re-Place-ment,” it is only fitting to acknowledge that today is a convergence of three commemorations that inform each other deeply: Earth Day, Good Friday and the anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf.  ‘Nuff said.
Musicians of the month:  This Passover/Easter week, what better musicians to recommend than good friends Charlie King and Karen Brandow?  Veterans of the labor and folk music scene, Charlie & Karen are deeply committed both politically and spiritually to their respective Christian and Jewish traditions.  Check them at  
Artist of the month:  Tevyn East is a performance artist currently touring nationally with her one-woman show on faith, economics and ecology entitled “Leaps and Bounds.”  I had the honor of co-writing this piece, which Tevyn embodies magnificently.  Schedule and info at
Our recovery of a consciousness grounded in the biblical Song of the Vineyard (see the last three posts) is crucial to the church’s reconstructive theology.  Unfortunately, until recently few theologians have recognized the importance of the land to biblical faith.  An early exception was Walter Brueggemann’s The Land: Place as Gift, Promise and Challenge in Biblical Faith (1977).  “We can no longer settle for the antithesis of the God of history versus the gods of the land,” he contended.  “Israel is to be discerned not as people waiting only for occasional intrusions but as living always with gifts that are entrusted and grasping that seduces.  Such a notion of placed history may be an important affirmation about the character of human life, about the strange struggle of homelessness and home, about the God who both leads out and brings in, about the Messiah who has no place and yet who is the very on with authority to give place.”
Brueggemann argued that recovering the biblical dialectic of the land as both “possession” and “gift” will aid contemporary theology in four ways.  First, it will help church to be more sensitive to struggles over land in our own history.  Second, it will better ground Christianity in its dialogue with materialist traditions such as Marxism.  Third, it reminds us of “Yahweh’s alliance with the poor against the landed”; biblical rootedness in the land always makes a place for the dispossessed of that land.  Finally, a theology of the land can help us resist total accommodation to the production-consumption values of urban technocracy. 
In 1988 World Wes Granberg-Michaelson noted how traditional Protestant theology was beginning to move from the notion of domination over the earth to stewardship of it.  But he urged us to go beyond this to a theology of interrelationship, which stresses the inherent value of creation over its utility value.  And all along, Wendell Berry’s writing has consistently been advocating that Christians (and citizens) center everything in real home places. 
Over the past two decades, more and more North American theologians have embraced these perspectives.  The literature on environmental theology and earth spirituality is now voluminous.  But what does this shift mean for Christian practice?  The late Quaker theologian Jim Corbett took a pragmatic approach; the best way to re-establish communion with the land, he contended, is to rediscover actual symbiosis with it.  Jim modeled this by practicing a spiritual discipline he called “goatwalking.”  In the rugged Sonora desert Corbett learned to live for days off whatever the land offers, supplemented only by the milk of a few goat companions:
To live peacefully as members of wildland communities, human beings who have been domesticated to live by possession must become untamed.  This is the heart of errantry… Learning to go cimarron [an old Spanish term for going feral] opens an exodus.  Learning to live by fitting into an ecological niche rather than by fitting into a dominance-submission hierarchy opens human awareness to another kind of society based on equal rights of creative agency for all (Goatwalking, 1991).
By recreating the Exodus wilderness experience of communion, Corbett argued, the church can begin to rediscover the politics of sabbatical covenant.  For Corbett and his community, this has taken two primary forms.  Their covenant with the poor was expressed through their Sanctuary work in the 1980s with borderlands refugees.  Yet they also have covenanted with the land itself, in 1988 forming the Saguaro-Juniper Association to acquire land in Southeast Arizona.  The covenant agrees to protect this land from erosive human activity and assure its resources will “never be rented, sold, extracted, or exported as mere commodities.”  
Corbett’s biblical land ethic is a pioneering and exemplary embodiment of a theology of reclamation.  But we must be clear what we are up against: an American culture predicated upon dis-placement and alienation from the land. This will be the subject of my next post.