Rev. Michael Tino
The hellfire and brimstone that we need to fear is not a hypothetical construct faced after death—it runs our cars and heats our tea, moves our cargo and makes our medicine. We are burning our planet, burning ourselves. We fuel our economy with the flames of damnation.
Some of you have had the resources to be able to heat your homes or drive your cars without burning things. I thank and applaud you for using those resources in service to our planet. Of course, very few of us can afford those upgrades to our houses and cars.
But as much as we might try, it’s impossible to get away from burning things completely. Unless you’ve managed to grow all of your food yourself (and some of you are getting there, I know), your survival depends on food raised and brought to you using fossil fuels.
The industries that make the things we use every day—clothes, computers, phones—and even the things we rely on to survive—dialysis machines, eyeglasses, stents placed in clogged arteries, medicines of all sorts, prosthetic hips and knees—all of those industries burn fuel in their factories and warehouses.
And I’m not going to tell you that you shouldn’t take your medicine, wear glasses, or eat. That would just be ridiculous, not to mention hypocritical.
Today, I want to ask what this burning, burning, burning, is doing to our souls, to our spirits, to our relationship with the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.
We have become accustomed to a way of life that requires the irreversible destruction of resources.
Our planet is not replacing the fossil fuels we are extracting from her—at least not at anything close to the pace at which we’re taking them out.
We cannot put back together the shale deposits that we are fracturing with high-pressure fluids in order to mine their gas.
My car makes electricity when I brake, but they have yet to invent a car that can suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and turn it back into gasoline. Note to chemistry nerds: I know that wouldn’t work anyway, trust me.
Indeed, I have come to the conclusion that the hellfire and brimstone that we need to fear is not a hypothetical construct faced after death—it runs our cars and heats our tea, moves our cargo and makes our medicine.
How do we get out of this? How do we extinguish the fires of hell?
Of course, we should start by burning a whole lot less.
But I believe that ultimately what we need is a fundamental re-orientation of our relationship to the planet. This belief is informed by theologians and environmentalists who see our domination of the planet and our willful destruction of its resources as extensions of systems of oppression that destroy human community.
Ecofeminists, for example, make the connection to patriarchial systems that devalue and dehumanize women. In treating the Earth as disposable, as burnable, we stake a power claim over our mother planet that relegates her to object, rather than agent.
Theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether writes that ecofeminism calls us to re-examine our mentality of consumption. Ruether challenges us to
“reshape our basic sense of self in relation to the life cycle. . . The western flight from mortality is a flight from the disintegration side of the life cycle, from accepting ourselves as part of that process. By pretending that we can immortalize ourselves, souls and bodies, we are immortalizing our garbage and polluting the earth.” (“Ecofeminism: Symbolic and Social Connections of the Oppression of Women and the Domination of Nature,” in Gottlieb, Roger S., ed. This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment. New York: Routledge, 1996)Rather than dedicating ourselves to the irreversible destruction of non-renewable resources, Ruether’s ecofeminism would call us to root ourselves in the cycles by which our planet renews itself. Burning wood, for example, is sustainable if we can grow trees as fast as we chop them down for fuel.
Feminist spiritual writer Charlene Spretnak places “post-patriarchial values” among the ten key values of a real ecological movement. She asks,
“How can we replace the cultural ethics of dominance and control with more cooperative ways of interacting? How can we encourage people to care about persons outside their own group? Ho can we promote the building of respectful, positive, and responsible relationships across the lines of…divisions?” (“Ten Key Values of the American Green Movement,” in Gottlieb)How can we do those things? I think we know how to heal human relationships, don’t we? We know how to challenge human systems of oppression, even if that work is hard, even if that work is long, and even if we haven’t remotely finished it yet. We know how to start that work.
And deep down, we know how we must reshape our relationship with our mother planet, with this Earth. We know that we have to leave in the ground those flammable remains of forests and creatures who lived millions of years ago.
We must re-place ourselves in the cycles of our planet. Cycles of growth and decay, cycles of production and destruction.
We must re-balance our lives. Our thoughtless consumption must come to an end. Yes, that’s a hard one for me, too. It’s hard, but it’s necessary. Our relationship with our mother Earth is at stake. Our strand in the interdependent web has stretched as far as it can.
And we must also approach all burning with reverence, not with callous indifference. Here, we light a flame to symbolize sacred space—we must get to a point where the fire heating our home and making our cars go is equally venerated. What would it mean to us if every time we burned something—near or far—we treated it as an event worthy of reverence, an event worthy to be set aside from the ordinary? Can we do that? I think we can.
May it be so.