The Earth needs a Sabbath

Creative commons

Biblical scripture speaks to the beauty of our home planet, the need to take care of it, and I believe command to reverence it as well. The Orthodox Church in America notes that reverence is hard to define, saying that it can be seen in attitudes of wonder, awe, submission or respect, along with veneration, humble deference, tenderness, and love. (Fr. John Breck, Reverence ) The home God created for us all, both human and non-human, certainly meets the criteria for something to be reverenced in my opinion.

Often I feel a sense of reverential awe when I am in certain types of natural settings, such as the many times I have delightedly swam with myriad tropical fish in the Pacific Ocean around the Hawaiian Islands where I lived for seven years, or when I stand next to the impossibly ancient, and truly magnificent Susquehanna River which flows powerfully through the bioregion where I currently live in southeastern Pennsylvania. Though I don’t often “feel” it in the same way, I also have a reverence, driven by my rudimentary knowledge of such things as the countless life forms in healthy soil ecosystems and the processes that take place there, for the many biological systems that enable me to eat delicious organically produced foods and to drink the tasty craft beers I enjoy so much with that food. Without healthy soil and clean water, there would be no nutritious, organic food for me to eat (for more on this topic see chapter two of my book Go Golden  ) and since I need to eat to stay alive, as does everyone else, it would behoove us to take an active role in preserving, regenerating, and rebuilding those systems. This is humanity’s great task at this time. Despite this awareness, I too often fail to truly appreciate the amazing life forms in all of the diverse ecosystems that allow me to eat the wide variety of foods that I do eat. Reverence for these ecosystems would be a good thing to cultivate within myself and I believe for all Christians to cultivate in themselves too.

Jewish and Christian scriptures speak to the goodness of creation. That is powerfully evident in the first chapter of the first book of the Hebrew Bible, which Christians have long called Genesis. After every day that God works on creation, God proclaims the newly created system of the created biospehere to be “Good.” Whether one reads these stories as literally true or metaphorically true, it is clear that humanity should see the created order as good and also holy, for it comes from that which we in our limited capacities to understand divinity call God.

Seeing the created order as holy is a theological concern that can and should be practiced pragmatically as well. For example, the Hebrew scriptures also speak to the importance of giving the land a Sabbath rest. In Leviticus 25, God tells Moses to let the people know that every seventh year the land itself needs a sabbath, which then as now is a good agricultural practice, especially in areas of the world with degraded landscapes or harsh environs such as those in the Ancient Near East (ANE) where and when the Biblical texts were written. Our planet’s ecosystems that support all life are in serious need of such a sabbath rest, from soils to the oceans. Such was its importance then, that a similar command is found in Exodus 23:10-11.

Leviticus  25:1-7 (NRSV) The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a sabbath for the Lord. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your unpruned vine: it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. You may eat what the land yields during its sabbath—you, your male and female slaves, your hired and your bound laborers who live with you; for your livestock also, and for the wild animals in your land all its yield shall be for food. 

There are now billions and billions of human beings competing for physical space, and the resources that make life not only possible but also easier, such as the on demand electricity we enjoy in the United States and other highly developed (translation “highly consumptive”) nations or the gasoline at the gas stations found seemingly on every corner. Humanity’s impact on the planet’s ecosystems and natural capital has grown much more significant since the Jewish sages wrote of the need to let the land lie fallow every seven years so that in can be refreshed and regenerated. The number of ecological problems facing human beings and all other life forms is simply staggering. Species loss due to extinction is now happening at a rate 1,000-10,000 times the natural rate according to the Center for Biological Diversity. (Center for Biological Diversity) If those rates hold, 30-50% of all the species in the world, all those creatures that God called good at the time of creation, will be gone by the middle of the century. That’s only 30 years away. Let that sink in.

Our planet needs a Sabbath. The arable lands of the world need a break from toxic chemicals, plowed furrows, topsoil loss, and erosion caused by run-off. The forests of the world need a sabbath from logging and artificial mono-crop systems with only certain types of trees grown for a particular market demand, rather than for healthy healthy forest biodiversity, and from applications of herbicides that are used after clear cutting. Our watersheds need a sabbath from industrial wastes like coal ash being dumped in them, from conventional agriculture’s chemicals and manures fouling them, and from garbage being thrown in them. Our skies need a  sabbath from the burning of fossil fuels in our cars, planes, and tractor trailers. Our entire planet needs a break from human kind’s most destructive modern practices. Collectively, we have a tiny window of opportunity to make these types of changes, to enact policies, systems, and procedures to give the earth some sabbath rest. This need for the ecosystems of our planet to have a sabbath is not a new or sudden development. In 1971, Pope Paul VI wrote that, “Due to an ill-considered exploitation of nature, humanity runs the risk of destroying it and in turn becoming a victim of this degradation.” (Quoted in Laudato Si’ On Care for our Common Home, Pope Francis, 2015, 8.)

As people of faith it is imperative that we are at the forefront of giving the Earth the sabbath rest it needs so that God’s creation can once again flourish. We can, and must make changes to our individual habits of consumption which will necessitate some major shifts in how we do things in our homes and communities. We can, and must, make political changes locally and nationally.  We can, and must educate ourselves, our children, and our communities about the need for the Earth to have a Sabbath.  We must take an active part in our communities to clean up watersheds, restore soil to health, replant riparian buffers, drastically shrink the amount of land devoted to lawns, reclaim habitat, and to pick up the detritus of American life that threatens to overwhelm us.

On a societal level we must make drastic changes, particularly in the areas of transportation and packaging. We must stop bailing out industries like airlines whose business activities are destroying the planet. I propose a Sabbath for the Earth by grounding all commercial flights, be they passenger or cargo, for a  minimum of one day per week. Imagine no planes in the sky and how that would give the Earth a chance to breathe. To give the oceans a Sabbath, we must have an overhaul of the cruise ship industry which is hugely polluting to the world’s oceans, and take the action to close imperiled fisheries to commercial fishing, just to name two much needed changes. Packaging wastes are filling our landfills and oceans. All packaging materials should be one hundred percent biodegradable which would mean banning single use plastics and Styrofoam as a start.

There are of course myriad other ways that we as people of faith need to use our influence and our actions to give our earthly home a sabbath. This is applied theology.

Peace be with you.

Image converted using ifftoany (NASA photo)

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