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Remember That You Are Dust (and Plastic)

Dustin Hoffman’s character Benjamin is given some career advice in the 1967 film “The Graduate” with a line that is ranked #42 in the top 100 movie quotations in American cinema.

Mr. McGuire tells Benjamin that he wants to “say one word” to him, “just one word.” He asks Benjamin whether he’s listening, and Benjamin replies, “Yes, I am.” And Mr. McGuire utters the now famous, one-word line:

Plastics.”

He then adds, “there’s a great future in plastics. Think about it.”

Actually, I can’t stop thinking about it, and not for the rosy future Mr. McGuire apparently imagined for this now ubiquitous petroleum and natural-gas by-product. I’ve been thinking about whether there’s anywhere, any possible place at all that I can turn to and not see something made from plastic, and I’ve been thinking that a greener, plastic-free Earth needs to take center stage in my devotions and commitments during these forty days of Lent.

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Surfing through garbage in Indonesia (2013)

Lest anyone think “ubiquitous” verges on the melodramatic or even just moderately overstated, consider the following short list of why this stuff really is everywhere (even where we, as a species, are not) and why it deserves crisis-level attention this Lenten season and long after.

  • Consider first the so-called North Pacific Garbage Patch—there isn’t one, contrary to what you have likely heard and read. But there are many such patches. And that makes it worse than even having that one great big one to worry about. The garbage in these migrating patches (the largest of which is now double the size of Texas) is mostly invisible to the naked eye (plastics that have become translucent or very, very small) but still can be ingested, and regularly is, by marine life, causing choking, starvation, and other impairments. Current projections suggest that by 2050 there will be more plastic materials by weight in Earth’s oceans than fish. By 2050—that used to sound like a long way off; it’s only 31 years away.
  • Consider next something a bit less abstract, like a whale. Last summer, a pilot whale died in a Thailand canal and was found to have 80 pieces of plastic (weighing 17 pounds) in its stomach, which interrupted the whale’s ability to hunt for food; during course of being treated by marine biologists in their efforts to save her, the whale spit up five plastic bags. (That’s only one among several recent stories in the news about whales and their plastic-lined guts.)
  • Or consider where no human has ever been, some of the deepest trenches at the bottom of our oceans. Just recently it was discovered that the tiny creatures living in those trenches are—as you might have guessed—stuffed with bits of plastic. Eighty (80) percent of the small crustaceans collected for one such study had plastic fibers lining their digestive systems. Another study conducted in the Mariana Trench in the Western Pacific (with a maximum known depth of 36,000 feet, or nearly seven miles) showed a shocking 100 percent of all the crustaceans collected had ingested considerable amounts of plastic.
  • Plastic is so ubiquitous that we ourselves are now apparently ingesting it regularly without realizing it and without anyone yet having any idea what this is doing to our health. Small-scale trials recently showed traces of plastic lining the digestive systems of the humans studied. We’re ingesting the stuff perhaps by eating seafood that had eaten the plastic stuff we had thrown out earlier, or from tiny plastic particles that float through the air nearly everywhere (did you know that?) and just happen to land on our food, or from the bits of the stuff that slough off from the inside of our plastic water bottles.

Christians on Ash Wednesday are reminded that we human beings are made from dust; perhaps we must now revise that liturgical wake-up call to include plastic.

Perhaps, but if so, I refuse despair. The hour is late but not spent, and we need to tell stories of hope—like this great 2018 story of an Indian beach painstakingly cleaned up and restored for a sea turtle hatchery.plastic_beach_cleanup

I invite you to join me in observing a hopeful and green-oriented Lent by brainstorming with me how to address our crisis of plastics. There won’t be just one solution and we can’t focus on just a single sector (whether public or private, households or industry). We need multiple solutions for every single aspect of our shared and individual lives on a planet this is quite literally drowning in plastic.

I’ll post some ideas here in this blog space. Please post your own in the comments, or find me on Facebook and post them there on my timeline. Let’s share resources, make a list, tell success stories, invite new ideas—let’s make every season of the church year green.

Meanwhile, let us pray:

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create in us hearts that grieve what we have done to the beauty of your creation, that we, worthily lamenting the epidemic of plastic waste, may obtain from you the inspiration we need to help restore Earth and her creatures to health and vitality; in the name of Jesus, your creative Word in the flesh. Amen.

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Christmas Eve and the Creaturely Flesh of God

The baby Jesus was human. More importantly still, an animal.

Most English speakers use the word “animal” for something other than human. But of course, we humans are animals, too. The Latin word anima simply means “breath.” Whatever is breathing is an animal.

This matters for the Twelve Days of Christmas, a season to celebrate God’s intimate embrace of creaturely flesh, and it matters on a planet in the throes of an ecological crisis. Christmas matters as a celebration of God’s solidarity with the whole of God’s creation and not only humans.

The Gospel according to John points us in this direction by insisting that the Word of God became flesh (John 1:14). As theologian David Clough notes, the key Greek word in that verse is not anthropos (human) but sarx (flesh), which is used elsewhere in the Christian Testament of the Bible as an inclusive term for all living things, just as writers in the Hebrew Bible used “flesh” to evoke the whole of God’s living creation.

Clough goes on to argue that the foundational Christian claim concerning the incarnation, therefore, “is not that God became a member of the species Homo sapiens, but that God took on flesh, the stuff of living creatures.”

More pointedly, Christianity does not offer an escape hatch from the material world of the flesh, as if all the gloriously messy realities of embodied life are sinful or evil (as the Christian tradition of my youth seemed to suggest). Christian faith invites instead a thoroughly materialistic spirituality.

Appreciating the material world not merely as a grand “stage” on which the human-divine drama plays out but as the location of divine encounter and the vehicle of divine grace has profound implications for how we treat all animals, human or otherwise.

We could begin by noting the mind-numbing scope of animal consumption. Conservative estimates suggest that 56 billion farmed land animals are slaughtered every year on this planet for food. That’s roughly 153 million every day, or 6 million every hour, or 106,000 every minute. These figures do not include marine animals or animals killed for sport or who die in zoos, circuses, and municipal shelters.factory_farm

(For the latest figures on animal consumption, see the online animal kill counter here, and the Animal Equality site for conditions on factory farms, as well as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. For resources on protecting the welfare of farmed animals, see CreatureKind, founded by David Clough).

How we treat other animals—whether in factory farms or on exotic hunting safaris—has a direct bearing on how we treat other humans. Feminist scholar Carol Adams noted back in the 1990s the correlation between how meat for consumption is packaged and how women’s bodies are similarly “packaged” in popular culture. Historian Thomas Laqueur analyzed early modern approaches to human sexuality that compared the “brutish” sexual acts of other animals to the “lower classes” of Europe. Womanist theologian Kelly Brown Douglas urges us to notice how white supremacy is maintained, in part, through the hyper-sexualization and thus “animalization” of black women and men. And these are but recent examples in a long history of dehumanizing through animalizing, as nearly every human society has done to its enemies before going to war with them.

Meanwhile, as the Apostle Paul insisted nearly 2,000 years ago, the whole creation is groaning with anticipation for the coming day of salvation (Rom. 8:19-23). Christmas marks the dawning of that eager hope, and other-than-human animals were most likely among the first witnesses of that glorious dawn.

The former Episcopal bishop of Alaska, Steve Charleston, offers an elegant reminder of that most holy night when the Word of God became creaturely flesh and of the animals (human and otherwise) who bore hopeful witness:

Now, on this day, all the animals turn, wherever they are, and look toward that place, that one place, where long ago they gathered, drawn by a wordless summons, to see the future of creation born, lying in straw, a sleeping hope, nestled safely among them. The animals know that this is the eve, the beginning. They sense the great cycle of sacred time, they know the meaning of the change to come. Now, on this day, on this eve of everything, they make ready the welcome they have prepared, since before the star above them first appeared, set alight by an unseen hand.

Kiss your spouse, hug a friend, pet your dog or cat—celebrate the flesh on this most holy night. And let us commit during these twelve days of Christmas to change the way we live with all other animals.nativity_animals_3

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I Care About the Chickens

I really don’t care what some misinformed Christian fundamentalist owner of a fast-food chain thinks about my sex life. I don’t even care how much money he gives to stupid political causes. It’s a free country – he can do what he wants with his money.

It’s high time we talked about the chickens instead.

We’re in a deep food crisis in this country and in many other parts of the world as well. We have been for a long time now. The crisis is about the environment, about human health, and about the humane treatment of non-human animals. The crisis, in short, is caused and perpetuated by industrial agriculture, or what one commentator has called our “catastrophic food production system.”

If we started boycotting all fast-food chain restaurants to protest factory farming, I’d be ready to sign up. But just because some corporate hack doesn’t approve of my dating practices? I have better things on which to spend my outrage.

(A Facebook friend pointed out just recently that Chipotle’s adopted a policy concerning the humane treatment of the animals used for their restaurants. Go here for a great little film about it and also more on the horrors of factory farming.)

Over the last few years I’ve come to a greater understanding of how appalling contemporary food production has become. My awakening began by reading, back in the 1990s, Carol Adam’s provocative book, The Sexual Politics of Meat (her links between misogyny and meat packaging are persuasive, as is her hypothesis about how we manage to avoid the moral implications of our eating by distancing ourselves from the sources of our food).

More recently, Michael Pollan’s eye-opening books, The Ominvore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, are simply must reads, not to mention Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and the documentary film of the same name.

It’s time to be much more outraged over industrial farming practices than over the religious beliefs of someone who couldn’t manage to come up with anything better than “Chick-fil-A” as a name for a restaurant (how many kids now think that’s how they should spell “fillet”?). While I’m grateful to the handful of mayors and other politicians taking a stand against S. Truett Cathy’s religious-based bigotry, I’d much prefer to see them and many more take a stand against the factory farms that litter our rural spaces with cruelty and environmental havoc.

I believe outrage over our food crisis can help fuel our work toward what Jesus called “The Kingdom of God.” Let’s call it the “Kin-dom.” That’s not my moniker; it’s been around a while, and came mostly from feminist critiques of patriarchal Christianity. And I like it, not least because it evokes and suggests not only that kinship is a key characteristic of human relationships but also of the relationship between humans and non-human animals.

Kinship – how much are we willing to stake on that? Are all of us humans really in the same boat on this planet? Is that ark big enough for non-human animals? It seemed to be for Noah.

I don’t claim any moral superiority on this topic at all. I’m a meat eater, so any vegetarian credibility is out the window, let alone any vegan points.

That said, I have read a lot over the last ten years or so about dogs (I’m a huge dog lover) and about horses, dolphins, and a smattering of other animals. All of it has been astounding and in some cases life-changing. Non-human animals share far more with us than most of us have ever imagined. And what we don’t have in common is equally astonishing and more than worthy of our respect.

The life-changer came when I realized just how much intelligence and emotional awareness we share in common with the animals we eat. Salmon? Not much. Pigs? Quite a lot. Cows? Somewhere in between. In all cases, however, these animals feel pain, experience fear and terror, and hundreds of thousands of them never see the light of day or are able even to turn around in their crates and pens.

Among the many topics our food crisis provokes, we need to consider nutrition and obesity rates as well as affordable food for families in tough economic times. Are grass-fed, free-range cattle more expensive once they get packaged in a grocery store than their factory-farmed counterparts? Yes, but not by much.

These days, when I stoop over the meat counter at Safeway and compare the Foster’s Farms chicken breasts (likely artificially fattened at the cost of serious discomfort for the chicken) with the Full Circle chicken breasts (humanely raised) I literally cannot stomach the former for the sake of $1.25.

Back in the 1990s, Roman Catholic Cardinal Roger Mahony declared, “Any society, any nation, is judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members; the last, the least, the littlest.” And Mahatma Gandhi supposedly once noted that “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

What sits inside that little white bag from Chick-fil-A is cause for far more worry and outrage than the misguided piety of the man who makes money from it.

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“Enchanté, Madame”: Why Good Policy Alone Won’t Save Us

Christ is risen and we’re killing the planet. I know – you’ve heard something similar countless times. Another species extinct. Another ecosystem threatened. Global climate change. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Maybe you haven’t heard this one quite so often: If it’s okay to rape women, it’s okay to rape the planet.

That grisly connection is, alas, being performed right now on legislative stages in Washington, D.C. and in far too many states. The link between the current war on women and the war on the planet (the former talked about incessantly these days and the latter, not so much), is subtle but vitally important.

I firmly believe that the many complex “issues” we face today are woven together in complex, lovely, troubling, spiritual ways. I want to try to evoke that here, if only as a preface to the great work our species must now confront. So let’s consider just a few of the dots that need connecting at the moment:

  • First, access to birth control and abortion (which is still technically legal in this country) is under attack. If only this were old news. I appreciate the moral quandaries faced by people of good faith about abortion, but now we’re seeing restrictions appearing even when the health of the mother is at stake, and even in cases of rape and incest. So, is it really okay to rape women? (For more on access issues, read here, which is wonky and policy-heavy, but important; or Rachel Maddow’s take on it here.)
  • Second, access to clean water, clean air, and a safe food supply is equally under attack. This doesn’t appear often enough in the headlines. According to some, the current Congress is the most anti-environment Congress in U.S. history. (Read more about that here; though this is a partisan source, it nonetheless provides helpful links to actual legislation, and it’s disturbing.)
  • Third, access to the truth requires tedious knowledge of legislative riders, appropriations bills, and countless other political arcana that make most people reach for a cocktail instead. The U.S. House, for example, recently passed a much needed piece of legislation for student loans, but paid for it by reducing health care funding that might affect women the most. (The word “might” is important there and I recommend Ezra Klein’s take on this here.)

These are not sexy dots to connect. But connect them we must. Consider this recent pithy observation about environmental responsibility from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams: the world is “not just a huge warehouse of stuff to be used for our convenience.” (Read a great essay on this here.)

I can’t help but wonder if far too many men think the same way about women – women’s bodies as warehouses, incubators, resources, objects. We’ve had a few decades now of insightful analysis about the link between male privilege and ecological degradation – men can control “mother” nature just like they (try to) control women. But I’m not at all convinced that such a link has sunk into our collective consciousness. (Even less likely to have sunk in are the connections between misogyny, homophobia, and global climate change…but I digress.)

So I wonder: How might all of us think differently about our own bodies, the bodies of others, the bodies of non-human animals, and the body of this planet? Would thinking differently make a difference in how we live, the social policies we support, the politicians we elect? I hope so. But what does “thinking differently” mean?

What about “enchantment”?

A few years ago, I stumbled upon a book that proposed precisely that and I’m still trying to tease out its implications. The book is by James William Gibson, called A Re-enchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship with Nature. It’s an insightful, heartbreaking, hopeful, and lovely book. I also believe Gibson captured something critical and essential: arguing about environmental policy won’t solve any of our problems unless we rekindle our nearly forgotten enchantment with nature.

By “enchantment,” Gibson means many things at once: nature isn’t anyone’s private property; it isn’t just a “resource”; it has its own life and value and beauty quite apart from humanity; and it’s uncanny, uncontrollable, lovely, grotesque, compelling, beyond categories of human meaning making. It is, in a word, enchanting.

I really want to think more and write more about this, and I will. But for now, in the midst of these Great Fifty Days of Easter (Easter is a season, longer than Lent), I frequently find my spiritual attention gravitating toward the image of the “new creation.” The resurrection of Jesus wasn’t just for him, and it wasn’t just for every other human. In some way, Easter proclaims God’s stubborn commitment to life for everything, without exception. Now that is surely peculiar, thankfully.

So, could that great Gospel proclamation lead us to a re-enchantment with the world and all its many wondrously uncanny and glorious bodies? Could it, at long last, dismantle the utilitarian and objectifying posture toward women’s bodies that so many politicians, not to mention religious leaders, seem to adopt? Could Easter move us to find each other and the world around us enchanting?

I believe it could. And not a moment too soon.