Even before summer had started last year, Australia was struggling with drought, increased temperatures, and bushfires.
Bushfires are a way of life for us here in Australia, but towards the end of last year and the beginning of 2020 we experienced the worst bushfires on record. As of two weeks ago, in the state of New South Wales alone, 17 people had died and 137 fires were still burning, with 60 uncontained. Land the size of Belgium had been destroyed and 1356 homes had been lost. This is without counting the devastating impact on our animals and wildlife. Currently things are beginning to return to normal again, though we might question what this “new normal” looks like.
What are some theological reflections we can make around these devastating bushfires that could also be applied to other natural disasters which might now increase with climate and environmental changes? Our theology needs to speak into the “new normal” of our times.
Place matters to us
One revealing and hopeful truth that has emerged from the ashes of these devastating bushfires is that people are realising more and more the importance of place, land and neighbourhood. Churches are having worship services outdoors in nature and on the beach, neighbours from all walks of life are helping each other out, and diverse communities are grieving for lost buildings, burnt land and public spaces that have been obliterated. This not only indicates how important our environment is to us as human beings but how deeply connected we are to the physical, tangible stuff of life. These spaces and places are contexts where we make memories and where we live out life in all its fullness. If we as Christians believe that the most important thing is simply “saving souls”, we are seriously mistaken. Our task now is nothing less than nurturing our precious spaces, places and environment and then restoring them back to life. Indeed, we should see this as an obligatory spiritual discipline.
Walter Brueggemann, in his well-known book The Land: Place as gift, promise and challenge in biblical faith, writes:
“Space means an arena of freedom, without coercion or accountability, free of pressures and void of authority. Space may be imaged as a weekend., holiday, a vocation and is characterized by a kind of neutrality or emptiness waiting to be filled by our choosing…But ‘place’ is a very different matter. Place is space that has historical meanings, where some things have happened that are now remembered and that provide continuity and identity across generations. place is space in which important words have been spoken that have established identity, defined vocation and envisioned destiny. Place is space in which vows have been exchanged, promises have been made, and demands have been issued. Place is indeed a protest against the unpromising pursuit of space. It is a declaration that our humanness cannot be found in escape, detachment, absence of commitment and undefined freedom.”
Place matters to us. Turning spaces into places is a spiritual discipline. Today, more than ever, our faith needs to be embodied, “this-worldly” and grounded, rather than “other-worldly”, disembodied and Gnostic.
Place and land matter to God
Place and land have always been important in Scripture. We see this most immediately in the Old Testament with the expression of Israel’s faith being so closely tied to the land. According to God, humans can impact the land and the land responds appropriately. In fact, the striking way in which the land is spoken about in the Old Testament is often something we don’t pay enough attention to. J. Joosten, in People and Land in the Holiness Code, writes about verses such as Leviticus 18:25, 26:35 and Numbers 13:32: “In these verses the land is clearly pictured as an entity distinct from its inhabitants. Moreover, it is represented as an independent agent. While it is stated in the same context that YHWH will cast out the nations dwelling in the land (18:24; 20:23), in the present verses the casting out is done by the land itself.”
Often we forget that the New Testament also expresses and builds on this attention to the land, even though more subtly. The authors Keesmaat and Walsh of Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice intriguingly interpret the book of Romans as pointing to care for the environment and the land, arguing that Paul’s narrative is simply an extension of his Jewish heritage. They write:
In Romans 8:20 (Paul) uses the language of futility to describe the bondage that creation is suffering. Futility is the language of idolatry throughout the Scriptures … such idolatry is overwhelmingly linked to to abuse of the land.
Further, they argue that the groaning of creation Paul refers to in Romans eight
has often been viewed as generic metaphorical language, a poetic way to describe the fact that creation also suffers as a result of human sin. However, just as such language pointed to specific economic and social practices in the scriptures of Israel, so also Paul is describing specific economic and social practices in relation to the land.
These bushfires ought to remind us that the care of place and land are important to God. What we do or don’t do on and to the land where we live has consequences. This means that as human beings we are called by God to steward our land well and this is of primary importance. If we don’t care for our land, it may react against us. We need to take this seriously and theologically since our land is currently being devastated.
The importance of “micro-practices”
During the bushfires there was a lot of talk about climate change and environmentalism. Today this is a hot topic in our world and rightly so. However, concepts like “environmentalism” can sometimes make us feel distant from a grounded reality.
It’s hard to think about how to engage with these big issues. We can feel helpless. Social media activism is helpful in some ways for creating awareness and for self-expression, however we need more than that. We need micro-practices that connect with these “macro-narratives” in our world today.
Placemaking, for instance, is an example of a micro-practice that can help us to care for our environment. When we work with the community in small, context-based ways to make the public spaces, nature and social infrastructure in our neighbourhoods places that are sustainable, beautiful and inclusive, we become environmentalists and we embody “environmentalism”.
These micro-practices can’t be imposed on us. Rather, fuelled by hope, they emerge from our deep desire to see change. As we engage in these small practices daily, it might not seem like we are doing anything extraordinary, but actually we are changing our world. When it comes to care for our environment in order to prevent natural disasters as much as we can, and also to care for our environment following disasters, we should view these micro-practices as spiritual disciplines to be practiced regularly, similar to prayer or church attendance or reading Scripture.
In the wake of Australia’s bushfires, there is a lot to reflect on theologically that relates to what the Spirit is saying to us today. Our faith must become more grounded, we must make place and land a priority and our actions must match our words as we practice spiritual disciplines that go beyond prayer, church attendance and Scripture reading. As crucial as these habits are, we need to complement these ancient practices with spiritual practices for the times we are living in that give expression to and form our faith for the care of our world.