A student from a large Christian university showed up at QC Family Tree, our hospitality house and community building ministry, for her summer of service and spiritual growth. Fresh off her training with dozens of other students, she was ready to work and hungry to learn. She also appeared to be literally hungry, judging by the multiple grocery bags, filled with cheese puffs and Moon Pies and snack cakes, piled beside her suitcase. I do not know what she planned to learn during this internship, but she did not plan to go hungry.
Her discomfort in our place was clear from the beginning, so it was only a little surprising that within 48 hours she had her bags packed and her ride on the way.
“Can you tell me a little about why you have decided to leave so quickly?” I asked.
“Well, for one,” she said, “I am having a hard time with the diet here. It’s just that I am not used to eating food from gardens.”
Oh dear. “Perhaps you should sit down for a moment” I said, shocked and a little amused. “I have something important I need to tell you.”
If anyone ought to know about the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees, and where eggplants and chickens come from, Christians ought to know those things. Once a year, we smear dirt on each other’s forehead and say, “Remember that you are dirt, and you are returning to dirt.” We proclaim, with our Jewish brothers and sisters, that the first people were made from dirt and took up residence in a garden.
Not only is the food we eat integral to our faith, but also the story of faith is a story of place. God’s relationship with God’s people is unimaginable without a relationship to a particular land. Even when they no longer reside in that land, the memory of the place helps to constitute their identity. A community constituted by a story of a people and their God and their land can adapt to when they become pilgrims or exiles. Sometimes faith travels. Sometimes faith stays in place. Wherever it goes, faith is always rooted in earth — in, as Wendell Berry reminds, “the two inches of humus that will build under the trees every thousand years.”
The lack of roots in the places we inhabit, and the lack of care for the places that nourish and sustain our lives, are issues of discipleship. At large Christian universities, at small Christian churches, and everywhere in between, the connection of faith to the health of the places that sustain us goes missing. In its stead, we have what we are taught to call “an economy.” This economy is built on extraction — on the removal of people from land, and land from people, and on the destruction of all of the gifts of earth for the purpose of short-term profit. Mountaintops are removed, topsoil is stripped away, and fields are sprayed with poisons, all to build the economy. Whether a community loved its mountains, or whether local people already knew how to work with creation rather than against it in increasing yields and sustaining health, are always secondary issues to growing the economy. Extraction and exploitation are the norm. Not only do they destroy God’s good earth, they rip at the heart of Christian discipleship.
This week, thousands of people across the country will gather at statehouses as part of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. This week, the fourth of six weeks of direct action at state capitals and in Washington, D.C., will focus on The Right to Health and a Healthy Planet: Ecological Devastation and Health Care. What the organizers of the Poor People’s Campaign, especially those who are poor themselves, know is that the health of individuals is always linked to the health of Creation. The devastation wrought by extractive environmental practices and exploitative economics will always affect human community. Those who are poor in a culture that worships wealth are likely to suffer the soonest and the most, but no one is safe from rising seas, the collapse of ocean health, and the poisoning of our water by toxins.
The systemic results of environmental distress and collapse come to bear on the bodies of poor people and people of color in the United States. This is called environmental racism, and it, too, is an issue of discipleship. For churches, especially white churches, theologies of domination have numbed us to the effects of our strategy of domination-as-discipleship. Everywhere we go, we conquer and subdue and force people and places to submit. We claim dominion, as though we were not a part of the Creation we are destroying. That is junk food discipleship. We need some balm to heal our sin-sick souls.
Our lack of spiritual and physical health grieves the God who made us and who longs to see us in healthy relationship with soil and with neighbors. And it grieves our neighbors, whose children suffer the consequences of our fetish with extraction and exploitation. Thank God some of those neighbors are organizing this campaign to help bring us to our senses. Their words and actions are Good News to a culture that has lost the knowledge of its place, and of the source of its wellness. The culture that has lost that intimate knowledge has lost the ability to be neighborly. For surely more goods, cheaper, at any cost, cannot save us. The evidence of this is overwhelming. But what can save us is what Jesus calls “the kingdom of God” — that is, the generous, neighborly economy of Abundance.