This continues my Creation series, and owes a particular debt to Catherine Keller’s Political Theology of the Earth, 2018, to which it can scarcely begin to do justice. Other inspirations are Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything, which is cited by Keller as well- plus some input and some small group conversation in a Climate Change Conversation we had at Wesley United Church several days before. The first time I thought of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner as an ecological text was in an interview by Richard Holmes on CBC radio sometime in the late 1990s- I looked for this in vain in his two-volume biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge [recommended! ] which I read recently and realized I was remembering this radio interview.
You may wonder- why did you just hear a long reading from Job, all about nature, all about creatures, especially sea monsters. [Job 38-41, selection of representative verses]
Well, I’ll come back to that soon.
First, this is World Communion Sunday where we get to eat a taste of bread and juice in a common space. Common space, Commons- that’s really important. Not like the House of Commons where you only get a regular seat if you’re elected. More like open, common, public space where all of us , everyone can go- Market Square or Chocolate Park or the public beach or walking trails or just the streets where we live and hang out, or the library, even the church [since you don’t have to have money for the offering]
Now you and I can ignore common , public space- at least in our free time.We can stay cosy in our private living spaces for days on end , with food in the freezer, with running water, every modern convenience and means of communication and entertainment. Unlike many in our world who don’t have these luxuries.
We – well, everyone but me- could have stayed at home today. But you chose to enter the commons- A good choice- we need to get together to make it through our lives and for our planet to make it too. Together we need to create a new story that’s not about you and me getting more as individuals in an ever growing economy.
To save our world, we can’t just have more and more. It’s down to us who have the most, not to people who live without electricity or water or food security. We’re the ones who need to live with less- to pool resources- together to find a simpler life – and that requires strong community. And together we have to help create a different public will- as we can’t do this as lone individuals- it takes a whole nation to work together, even as we make the personal changes we can.
But here’s the rub. The commons is not just those addressed in most election promises- which include some of us. There’s the Undercommons — a phrase from Black thinkers- [Keller, Political Theology of the Earth, p.30-32 ] meaning: those who are underground, invisible, not truly heard; those of origins other than white European; the indigenous, waiting and waiting for the government to compensate their children; the displaced tent city residents in Moncton; occupants of the gay village in Toronto threatened with a march by a Christian hate group,
And beyond Canada, there are Undercommons who are starving, displaced, or coping with the worst of climate emergency.
Either – as Naomi Klein. reminds us- we share with them- or we hang on to what we have, forcibly hoard it, protect it, and tune out the voices of those most in need. And as Catherine Keller reminds us , we can’t just keep speaking in our voices, speaking for them- we need to open up space for them to speak and be heard, including even their expressions of pain and anger. To save this earth for everyone, all stories, all of life must be gathered up, Not just us,Not just our own story, And not even our version of someone else’s story. [Naomi Klein, That Changes Everything, p, 10 and many other places, Keller, Political Theology p.28 etc. ]
And the Undercommons includes the non-human population. Our world would not be our world without them. Our wellbeing and theirs is bound up together. Any of us with pets understand this- our well-being and theirs is for sure bound up together. But so it is with countless other species – some we eat, some pollinate our flowers and vegetables, some live in our guts, some keep the fish and whales alive- and more- or without minerals, elements and more, All of these vulnerable to our choices, at risk from our footprint, all depending on a natural balance which we humans often disrupt . Go read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring– it’s all there!
Our Christian heritage is far too centred on humans. The New Testament is for sure. Plus we misread the creation story- as if we humans can just do whatever we like to creation.
And yes, there are images of an almighty God subduing creatures – a God who could come fix our mess if God wanted to. –
But then, there’s Job.
Job is as wretched as can be, he’s lost everything, he’s afflicted with every misery there is. But what does he learn? It’s not all about him. It’s not all about human. It’s all about, well, every body, every creature, everything. Humans exist, even God exists, only within a vast, deep, abundant, powerful creation, way bigger than the puny human. Our story exists only within the earth story, the universe story.
And so we share space not just with ourselves but with all life- including the “humming , roaring, barking, buzzing input “ of our animal kin. [Keller, Political Theology , p.87 ] We cannot think just about ourselves, we have to think of all our relations, all those hidden in the Under-commons, the casualty of decisions we make for humans alone, or, correction, for privileged humans alone.
The book of Job reminds us of that- so does a poem you maybe read in school: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It’s too long to read in church- I had to settle for verses from Job instead- But please go home and read it- google it if you don’t have a hard copy- complete with Coleridge’s marginal notes.
I didn’t get it 55 years ago. But now it jumps out at me.
An albatross shows up to accompany a ship sailing through a vast ocean. The mariner of the story shoots the Albatross. For no good reason, just because he can. Humans do this, and have done this since. But in this story such behaviour cannot be dismissed or forgotten. This one killing upsets the whole balance of nature, at least for the crew. Nature Spirits stay the ship in becalmed water, all die but the mariner- he alone is left.
The albatross is hung around the mariner’s neck . And there it remains until one day he starts admiring the water snakes playing in the water. Earlier he would have dismissed them as slimy ugly creatures- but now he sees their beauty, his heart warms and he blesses them- And that begins the healing, the albatross falls off his neck and eventually he does get mysteriously a safe if ghostly passage home. But he is never off the hook, as he must wander the earth and tell the story- with the moral “he prayeth best who loveth best all creatures great and small”. As is so today : to pray to, or with, God we must live with respect in Creation.
We may not believe in vengeful nature spirits or a vengeful supreme being. But let the lessons of Job and the lessons of the Ancient Mariner remind us-On this world communion Sunday: It’s not just about the bread and juice we eat. It’s not just about you or me. It’s about all who need to be at the table, nourished, respected, honoured, having a voice-including all beings who keep the food chain going so that we can get to eat. It’s about all the Undercommons who need our respect, our care, our faithful footprint, so that this whole diverse mysterious network of life can continue , all of it loved, all of it blessed, by you, by me, for our sake and for God’s sake and for love of this world.