“Re-Place-ment”

Aug
2

Note: This continues a series on an eco-theology of “Re-Place-ment.” It is a serialized and edited version of material originally published in Who Will Roll Away the Stone? Discipleship Queries for First World Christians (Orbis, 1994).

Pictured above: A re-built heiau, or traditional Hawaiian shrine, on the island of Kaho’olawe (picture by Robert Shallenberger, 2010).

Artist of the month: I’ve been wanting to prop Rev. Ted Lyddon-Hatten’s work for a long time, but the brother just can’t seem to post images of his world class work on the web. Fortunately, somebody captured him working at the Wild Goose Festival in June.   Lyddon-Hatten is a Methodist minister and a dear friend whose work in a variety of media is profoundly political and theological.

Musician of the month: King Britt and Sister Gertrude Morgan: “New World in My View” (2005).   Hip hop adaptations of rootsy apocalyptic preaching of a revered old preacher, and “a prime example of the historical continuity of African America.” Evangelist, artist, humanitarian, and poet Sister Gertrude Morgan lived and ministered in New Orleans from 1900-1980. King Britt (from Philadelphia) “weaves an evocative ambiance into Sister Morgan’s vocals.”   Check out an audio clip.

Where people have no relationship with land it is abandoned to the forces of corporate vandalism. When capitalism exploits labor, workers can organize and fight back; the land, however, cannot. Conversely, those who are rooted in a place care enough to defend it. That is the difference between traditional people and modern suburbanites, as in the following three examples contrasting to my home bioregion of southern California:

• Hispanic farmers in Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico, continue to battle resort developers trying to monopolize local water resources, while white suburbanites in south Orange County, CA, have stood by and watched the systemic destruction of their hills and canyons and beaches, offering almost no opposition;

• Immigrant residents of Poletown in Detroit in the 1970s fiercely if unsuccessfully fought General Motors' plan to replace their blue-collar neighborhood with a new factory (chronicled by Jeannie Wylie in both book and film), while the elitist redevlopment board of Los Angeles (and most U.S. cities) routinely authorized razing older districts to accommodate corporate capital;

• Native Hawaiians resisted, through protracted nonviolent resistance, the Navy's use of the island of Kaho'olawe as a bombing range (a struggle which achieved success in 1993), while southern Californians have exhibited total disinterest in the Navy's use of San Clemente island off their coast for the same thing.

Only love for specific land—what Hawaiians call aloha 'aina—can motivate us to struggle on its behalf.   This is why we have decided to hold annual BCM Institutes in Oak View on some aspect of ecojustice, in order to practice disciplines of “re-place-ment.”

Our rationale is simple: we won’t save a place we don’t love; we can’t love a place we don’t know; and we can’t know a place we haven’t learned.

Re-place-ment” is a marginal notion in mainstream political and theological discourse alike. Liberation theologies of the Third World and liberal theologies of the First have been equally captive to the ideological and conceptual frameworks of industrial modernity. But there are signs that this is beginning to change.

Herman Daly and John Cobb, for example, in their important study For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, the Environment and a Sustainable Future (1989), have called for a major shift from anthropocentric to "biocentric" economic theory and practice.   Similarly, Montana politician Daniel Kemmis, in his equally groundbreaking little book Community and the Politics of Place (1990), discusses “how place-centered practices could transform public life.” Drawing off bioregional writers like Gary Snyder and "civic republicans" such as Robert Bellah, Kemmis urges us to return to a "re-inhabitory politics" which rediscovers the power that arises "from the efforts of unlike people to live well in specific places." Robert Schreiter's Constructing Local Theologies (1985) is also worth mentioning here.

Faith-based activists are learning to listen to indigenous traditions which never gave up their rootedness, such as the long-term fortitude of Innuit resistance to economic and military displacement in Canada and the repatriation struggle of Guatemalan Indian campesinos in the refugee camps of southern Mexico. Nor should we forget that there are many geo-cultural pockets in the U.S. where a “love song for place” has not yet been lost: among Black farmers and Chicano farmworkers, deep in mountain hollows of Appalachia and out on open ranchlands of the Colorado Plateua, alongside Southwest acequias and by Northwest riverbeds.

These voices and their traditions have been marginalized by the dominant culture, but they can and must be heard again. It will be difficult to reconstruct a "politics of place" in the U.S., because the social forces of displacement are so advanced here. It will surely require as many generations to reclaim our land and sense of place as it did to destroy them. What is clear is that we have no alternative.

In future blog posts I will investigate elements for a theology of re-place-ment drawing from my own context in the American Southwest. Using the three seed parables of Mark's Jesus as metaphors, I will look at the possibilities latent in social, economic, and political traditions often considered new but in reality quite old: local control of development, anarchism, and bioregional self-determination. These traditions have been at best ignored by theology, at worst considered anathema, and are deemed downright heretical within the ideological field of modern capitalism. I believe, however, that they represent the best way forward for reconstructing a collective life in resistance to empire. I conclude these reflections with my own lovesong for the land that is my home.