Reconciliation With the Earth June, 1990

Well over a decade ago, a certain quotation had a profound effect upon me. The subject of the statement was the proliferation of nuclear weapons, “For the first time in history, human beings have the capability to destroy all human life and the earth itself” The quotation, part of a larger article, went on to cite how the nuclear weaponry of our time had escalated to the point where we could destroy all of life several times over. The essay further documented the results of such a nuclear holocaust with an ensuing nuclear winter and the demise of this fragile earth, our island home.

In remembering this statement, we all recognize that we are products of a cold war mentality undergirded by a pervasive anxiety born of this awesome knowledge of the future itself being an option.

The events of the past several months have brought new, un­expected and surprising hope given the prognostications of the dooms­day sayers of recent memory. Who could have imagined that at the beginning of this decade we would be talking seriously about a peace dividend, the reduction of mili­tary forces and weaponry, the closing of military installations around the world and new forms of diplomacy moving beyond nuclear deterrents and the threat of atomic apocalypse?

The celebrations of a reu­nified Germany pointing to the possibility of a unified Europe, the be­ginning of the release of hostages in the Middle East, the cessation of armed conflict in Nicaragua, the release of Nelson Mandela in South Africa and perhaps, most remarkably, the decline and breakup of to­talitarian rule in communist bloc countries, suggest the possible end of the fear and anxiety associated with a cold war leading to global anni­hilation.

In the midst of such hope filled signs and change, in recent years we have become aware of a far more pervasive and growing cause for corporate anxiety and realistic fear. The source of such dread is not the assault of one nation against another but the assault of all na­tions on the earth itself.

Last month we celebrated “Earth Day.” In so doing we rehearsed a litany of despair: diminishing rain forests, depletion of the ozone layer, increasing acid rain, pollution of streams, lakes, oceans and aquifers owing to chemical waste disposal and fertilizer run off, the greenhouse effect and global warming, to name but a few. In addition to the litany, Earth Day was also marked by a plethora of well-meaning resolutions, commitments and calls to reverse the wanton de­struction of the Earth. Everything from planting seedlings to in­creased recycling was put forth in an attempt to curb the deterioration and quality of life on this planet. Furthermore, there appears to be a growing sensitivity, awareness and need for education in recognizing that the resources of the earth itself are limited and finite and the ma­nipulation of our environment has brought unintended consequences.

1990 has been designated as a Year of Reconciliation within South Dakota. The primary focus of this reconciliation is relational; the relationship of the two cultures in the state, Lakota culture and western/northern European cultures. Beneath the need for reconciliation between peoples is a need for peoples of all races and cultures to be reconciled with the earth itself, our shared and common mother. Nowhere are we more acutely aware of this than in the state of South Dakota. While much remains to be done in an attempt to protect our environment, a basic change of attitude and values underlie the need for reconciliation with the earth itself. In short, in protecting the environment we protect ourselves and the possibility for a future.

What are some of the attitudes and values that have contributed to our being estranged from the earth?

Historical awareness provides us with some clues. The first settlers saw this land as a limitless source of natural wealth. Coupled with the zeal for establishing a new place for religious and economic freedom and development, various quotations from the Bible, such as misquoting the Genesis account for humans to “dominate” the earth were used as warrants for ‘conquering” and “taming” the wilderness that was named America. This heady spirit coupled with religious conviction resulted in policies such as “manifest destiny,” the duty, perhaps more accurately, the obligation to subdue and domesticate the vast expanse of wilderness known as the “West.” These attitudes and values continue to mark our relationship with Third World nations.

The call to be reconciled with the earth is a sacred invitation to a religious vocation. To be reconciled with the Earth means putting aside our hubris or pride and re­placing it with humus or what theologian Teilhard de Chardin has called a revitalized sense of “earth consciousness.” Religiously, this means we are called to respect and work in cooperation with the rest of creation which has been entrusted to us, not given to us for exploitation. Such a religious vocation is to reread more accurately the Hebrew account of Genesis, which is a call to stewardship of the earth in the mode of being servants of a creation of which we are a part. The call is to provide care rather than assume ownership and control.

In caring for the earth, we care in a very deep sense for our­selves and future generations as creatures invited to the ominous task of being co-creators. This invitation leads us to a theological observa­tion, incarnation. Lakota culture and spirituality are especially helpful in attempting to retrieve the original meaning of incarnation as seeing all of creation as alive, vibrant and wonderfully present to us as gift. To be reconciled to the earth requires a new form of recovering the sa­credness of all life and to see the interdependence of all life as the essence of reconciliation itself.

Earth Day needs to be celebrated every day. If we fail to do so we exchange a “cold war” for a “warming global conflict,” with the earth itself. The need for such reconciliation requires ongoing change and scrutiny, given the fact our past attitudes and values regarding the earth have brought with it unintended and irreversible consequences and a cumulative effect. We must disimbue ourselves of any notion of owning portions of the earth and begin to see ourselves as grateful stewards. Perhaps in learning to see the sky, the water and other forms of plant and animal life as gifts, we might better be able to understand our common humanity literally grounded in humus, the Earth. How can we own, conqueror manipulate that which gives rise to life? Let us seek reconciliation that invites us to look at our common humanity in our common ground, the earth itself.


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