Spirit of the Land: Called to a Radically Ordinary Life

Guest Message – September 21, 2014 – Carmelle Mohr
Spirit of the Land: Called to a Radically Ordinary Life

Good morning. My name is Carmelle. Thank you for welcoming me so kindly this morning.

I’ve had the pleasure of being at St. John’s Anglican Church a few times. As such, Grant has been savvy to some of the paths I’ve walked down in recent years. So, he’s asked me to share a bit about what I learn from these experiences. Throughout the last few years, I’ve been fortunate with opportunity to study Globalization, Development and Ecology at the University of Alberta, and in Cuba at La Universided de Oriente. Recently, I lived and worked among indigenous communities in Peru, advocating against Canadian mining operations on their lands. The other major experience throughout these years, is my work in Alberta and BC throughout these years that strives to gather First Nation voices, landowners and farmers, oil and gas industry workers, and governmental representatives into compassionate dialogue with each other. Voices which are so alienated from each other. It is from these places and peoples that my message this morning is shaped.

A poem by Agrarian philosopher and farmer, Wendell Berry, entitled “The Peace of Wild Things.”

When despair for the world grows in me
And I wake in the night at the least sound
In fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
Rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
Who do not tax their lives with forethought
Of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
Waiting with their light. For a time,
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

The instability of our climate is undeniable. At extreme scale and pace, unfettered resource extraction is proceeding. The economic inequality between rich and poor is growing. We have exceeded the safe limit of carbon in the atmosphere. And yet we hear and preach the mantra that ‘economic growth’ will save us.

Extinction. Famine. Civil war. Loneliness. The magnitude of suffering around the world and around the corner, is overwhelming. For many of us, its harshness ignites despair, apathy or false-optimism. Others of us are stirred to protest to protect those we hold dear.

Yet, the desecration of our Earth continues. In the face of today’s crisis… Where on earth do we begin?…

As you may know, Canada, before it was so named, was called “Turtle Island.” This land- and waterscape, spanning nearly 10 million square kilometres, has been the home of creatures, flora and fauna for thousands of years. As the great glaciers began to melt 16,000 years ago, Turtle Island’s first human-inhabitants entered in, following the musk ox, woolly mammoth, salmon, and the ancient reindeer. From the Bering Straight, journeys south continued, down the Rocky Mountains, to Sierra Madre, and to the Andes. Let us remember all those before us, for they are the soil that give us life and meaning.

Today, Turtle Island, or Canada, is home to 140,000 species. Among them is the Great Blue Heron, the Humpback Whale and the Haida Gwaii slug, the Yukon Whitlow grass and the Great Red Cedar. These lands are diversity overwhelming: mountain ranges, sweeping plains, frigid tundra, dessert valleys, rainforest, fresh water lakes. And it is a landscape that bears witness to living skies: the Aurora Borealis and the Milky Way.

Today, the human community in Canada is of three stories: Indigenous, Immigrant and Settler. Since these different stories first met roughly 500 years ago, brutal conflict has filled our past, and present. These lands, though, have also witnessed deep-rooted and unyielding friendships between us.

In the last 10 years in Canada, an awareness of our global crises is occurring. Environmental, social-justice groups and marginalized communities here raising their voices louder than ever before. It is a remarkable and inspiring movement. Yet, as more Canadians are coming into a global awareness, so too is a great divide occurring among us: between liberalism and conservatism, environment and economy, urban and rural, First peoples and Settler peoples, privileged and marginalized. A two-sided Canadian context is increasing. As such, in the face of our global and local crises, Canadians are responding in two main ways.

One way is through development agencies, faith-based organizations and government programs. Since the term “development” was coined in 1949, “development” has been widely assumed to be the mechanism for justice. However, the majority of development agencies, organizations and programs exemplify a phenomenon known as “arm-chair activism,” that is: when privileged groups in the Global North are theoretically revolutionary but ethnocentric in practice. For, “development” does not hold to account those whose very lifestyles, cultures, politics and economies benefit from the desecration of other communities and lands, perhaps those very ones they, then, go to “develop.” To be clear, this is not an assumption of mal-intention. Certainly, most of our development efforts have arisen from compassion. But there is an inauthenticity between our rhetoric, and our practices. Despite our aid, foreign investment, free-trade and literacy campaigns, injustice is increasing, for we too often assume the only difference between the colonizers and the colonized is money and political will.

On May 14th of last year, during the time I was living in Peru, Canadian Prime Minister Harper visited Peruvian President Humala. Their meeting was to announce the Canadian government’s $53 million allotment of aid-money to Canadian mining companies working in Peru, an industry infamous for cruel practice among indigenous communities. In the name of “Development,” Canada’s foreign policy is tied to the economic prowess of its mining companies. And it is campesino, village and future generations who suffer consequently. This is merely one example of how many of the values we keep and have elected in Canada destroy lives and lands, despite the banner of “development” they claim.

I, among many others around the world, urge us to consider that most development programs and pedagogies are, in fact, neo-colonialism. It is deeply uncomfortable, though, to imagine that such good intention could conceive actions that actually increase suffering in the long term; that while we are trying to be good, we are often being cruel.

Since the onset of industrialization, the Christian Church has often stood by complacently while the human- and natural-community have suffered exploitation, as “the inevitable cost of progress.” Interestingly, the Christian Church in Canada has not blossomed because of this. Instead, membership declines, unprecedentedly. In fear and surprise, church-goers and leaders here ask, “Why are young people not part of the church?” As a “young person,” I am often asked this question… Well, if young or old people’s experience of organized religion is to accept the destruction of Creation, which is its subject, is it not a sign that the church must either renew itself or die off completely?

With a heavy heart, I tell you this is how many Canadians and much of the Church in Canada respond to our global crises today.

Other Canadians respond in another way. This group, to generalize, is composed of environmental-justice advocates, young people, and many First Nations voices. That such long suppressed voices are singing now is indeed hope-inspiring! However, the rhetoric and actions of this group are often oppositional in spirit. Seeking to protect Creation – be it lands, waters or communities – this group often does so by shaming and blaming “others.” Particularly, those Canadians who genuinely believe a growing economy is the means to better livelihoods for all.

Indeed, today, there are great reasons to be outraged, to shame and blame others. Each day in Canada, 3.8 million barrels of oil are extracted from the old earth beneath our feet. Each season, massive legislation sweeps through our parliament, condemning species and communities. Each year, 57% of aboriginal women in Canada are subject to violence and 200,000 new immigrants cannot access adequate health care. Each day, 1 in 5 children in Canada go hungry. Each day, a honey bee falls from the sky… There is great reason to be outraged today. And so there is a strong temptation to oppose, blame and shame those who sit in positions of economic and political power.

However, no matter a cause’s validity, we cannot wage war of any kind against each other! Here is one example why. Analyzing German society pre- WWII, Erich Fromm, a German scholar and theologian, discovered that the German people were, what he termed, “free-from belonging to a social-order.” He discovered that it was Germans’ disconnection from each other that allowed Nazi authority to capture German culture with relatively little inner-resistance. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, too, wrote about how rapid submission to Nazi authority occurred because German citizens did not feel they belonged to each other – responsible for their neighbour.

Fromm’s and Bonhoeffer’s discovery prove there are fatal consequences when we do not understand ourselves as sisters and brothers of each other. When we do not choose to belong to each other.

Both of these groups in Canada, by being groups, make a fatal assumption. One group assumes that the other Canadians simply do not care about the Natural world and its creatures. Similarly, the other group assumes that these Canadians do not understand the importance of economic growth. On both sides are people of good intention. Yet, these groups oppose each other. It is a tragic paradox.

In 1949 and now, when ancestors crossed the Bering Straight and now, disconnection is the root of all suffering – disconnection from each other, from our lands and within ourselves. Thus, we must not oppose each other, even in seeking to protect those dear to us. Of Indigenous, Immigrant and Settler story, we all care. If we oppose each other while we try to do so, we only further our great disconnection. As Thomas Berry writes: “to be alienated from the sacred Community is to become destitute in all that makes us human.”

Since the onset of industrialization, we began a whole-body submission to a new economic structure that operates upon humans’ alienation from Creation. At this point in history, the belief in a singular concept of “the good life” began. A concept many of us assume all need. But, to achieve this “ideal,” Creation must be separated. One sacred community – one earth – must become a sum of resources; nothing more than commodities. It has resulted in: nation against nation. Farmer against farmer. Neighbour against neighbour. Body against soul.

… But it need not be this way. Indeed, there is another Way!

If it is our collective actions of disconnection that have given rise to today’s crises, then the opposite also is true: that our collective actions of connection give rise to a kinder tomorrow! If disconnection is the root of suffering, then any act of connection is an act of peace-making.

Could this be? Could it be that my acts of love in my place have a ripple effect that, although indirect, are globally significant? Let us listen to the words of Ruby Blume: “Our small daily actions towards the things that nourish us are the only actions of positive impact. We have to shake off the trance that tells us this is not so. We cannot remake the world in whole, only in part.” The healing of our world requires each of us: as we are, where we are, with our particular gifts, and our particular inadequacies. Radically ordinary. Today’s crisis is calling us to radically ordinary lives! So it is time to re-value those great, small actions, such as: befriending, just taking enough, sharing our table. Of course, when measured against the geo-socio-political situation of our globe, singing together around a campfire certainly does not seem like an adequate response to global suffering. Inviting a stranger in for a warm meal certainly does not seem like a logical response to systemic sin. But, is love not beyond rationality? The actualization of God’s Kingdom of Love on Earth will certainly not be done by logical action. It Shall Be Done by wonderfully, small, indefensible acts of love.

Moreover, we are made exactly for this task! Exactly for the task of doing small things with great love, for we have been born with and out of an indigenous capability to love like this. So, may we not begrudge our smallness, but be filled with joy in our capability to do our task. And may we never permit the inherent uncertainty of this Way, the leap of faith it requires, to hinder us. American philosopher Wendell Berry was recently asked: “Do you believe we will actually change our ways in time to avert ecological collapse?” He replied, saying: “We don’t have a right to ask that question. The only question we have a right to ask is: ‘what is the right thing to do?'”

So if it be true sin is disconnection, then may the Church, and all religions, find again their role. The word “religion” comes from the Latin verb “Religio,” which means “to bind together. To reknit.” Indeed. The act of connecting. As it has always been and is today, it is role of religions to knit all together. By definition, the healing of our world is religious.

And so, let us clarify one last time: this is a call to Love. And love, to be love, requires sacrifice for an “other.” It is hard, painful work. It is the hard work of dialogue. The hard work of treating the most harmful member of our community as sister or brother. The hard work of breaking bread with the one I most profoundly disagree with, because their story, too, is true and beautiful and hard. Love may require us to turn our cheek, to go without, or even give our life for another. I believe this hard, hurting work is the true work of Love.

We began our time together with that question we so often ask when we glimpse the magnitude of suffering around the world, feeling so insignificant. The question: “Where on earth do we begin?”

Perhaps within our very question, is an answer: On Earth. Begin on Earth. For when we are present on Earth, we come to know it. When we come to know our place, we begin to fall in love with it. We cannot help it! Then, in love with it, we take care of it. And when we care for it, we belong. Connected.

David Goa writes: “The Christian faith calls its daughters and sons to be present. It does not call them to bring about a new world order through some technique or ideological breakthrough. It calls us to walk the local pathways so that we may experience the mystery of being of each other.”

“…Calls us to be present.” Within our particular place. For when we are present with the land, waters, and fellow creatures, our commonality is revealed: that we are all made of dust, and to dust we shall all return. Present, we come into the awareness that we are all part of one sacred community, one great commonplace.

The way my friends of Indigenous story in Peru speak about land is so similar to how my friends of First Nations here speak about their homelands. This similarity is more than mere coincidence – it is of an ancient truth. Of one common story.

So this is some of what peoples and places have taught me these last few years: that Creation, can be our ever-starting place; the eternal source of energy for that painful, sacrificial work because we know we are of each other. When our crisis overwhelms us, come into the presence of Creation, and we shall be upheld by a greater horizon that transcends this world. Thus, when he who walks to his death says to us: “Take up your cross and follow me…,” we can. Because we are assured by the hope beneath our feet, even when all reason for hope is gone. Here, on Earth as Earth, we begin again, and again.

Our starting place, our resting place. Amen.