Our bodies know. The harm we do to creation, we carry in them. We feel it in our bones; we have become strangers in our own home. We’re encased in concrete and steel, glass, plastic and rubber. Our feet barely touch the earth. With our windows closed, our climates controlled, we no longer smell the rain. Our food, our clothing, our homes, are bathed in chemicals that make us sick. We send our garbage away where we cannot see that it is still with us. As we calmly consume an ever-increasing amount of energy, glaciers melt, seas rise, species disappear, drought and disaster strike. Separation of cause from effect, dissociation of body from body, this is the disease that infects our industrialized world, that brings us to this moment of ecological crisis. Our bodies know; the harm we do to creation, we carry in them. We feel it in our bones: we have become strangers in our own home.
The book of Revelation is not about the rapture, about who gets into heaven and who doesn’t. It is not really a prediction of end the world, either. It is a coded vision, a fantastical dream, which is, ironically, intended to shock humanity awake. Revelation uses the metaphor of a bloody, violent, cosmic conflict to portray the struggle between creation, as God meant it to be, and creation, as we have perverted it to be. In the time in which this book was written, the Roman Empire was the clearest example of humanity’s distortion of itself and of our relationship with the earth. Revelation was a call to early Christians to “come out” of Rome, just as the Israelites came out of Egypt. In both cases, the freed slaves had to create a new community, one that resisted the values and norms of oppression. The book of Revelation culminates with the promise that in the midst of all our struggle, God is birthing a new world. “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.” In this vision, there is both a radical departure from what is now, and a profound continuity with it. As scholar Barbara Rossing puts it,
[The author’s] point certainly is not that the whole cosmos will be annihilated… The “first earth” that passes away represents the earth as captive to imperial domination and sin. The earth and all things will become “new” just as our bodies will be resurrected, renewed.
The earth will not be abandoned, and its inhabitants beamed up into the sky. Instead, this earth will be the ground, the raw material, for a new creation. We will live in a natural city, a city built not out of steel and concrete, but out of the heaven that is God’s earthly body. Death, mourning and crying will be no more because our alienation from our bodies and our creator will be healed and we will at last be at home.
Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehsi Coates, is a letter from an African American father to his young black son. Throughout this account, Coates keeps our focus on the fact that white supremacy is a system rooted in destruction of the black body. The book concludes with a passage that links this destruction of the black body with the destruction of the earth. Coates explains that he once believed, with Malcolm X, that there would be a day of reckoning for white society (for the people he calls “Dreamers”). But, this he realized, “was all too pat”:
Should the Dreamers reap what they had sown, we would reap it right with them…. Once, the Dream’s parameters were caged by technology and by the limits of horsepower and wind. But the Dreamers have improved themselves, and the damming of seas for voltage, the extraction of coal, the transmuting of oil into food, have enabled an expansion in plunder with no known precedent. And this revolution has freed the Dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself…. Something more fierce than Marcus Garvey is riding on the whirlwind. Something more awful than all our African ancestors is rising with the seas. The two phenomena are known to each other. It was the cotton that passed through our chained hands that inaugurated this age. It is the flight from us that sent them sprawling into the subdivided woods.
Coates advises his son:
Do not struggle for the Dreamers…. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all. The Dream is the same habit that endangers the planet, the same habit that sees our bodies stowed away in prisons and ghettos.
Barbara Rossing remarks:
[The author of Revelation’s] declaration that “the sea was no more” in 21:1 does not mean he is anti-ocean. The Mediterranean Sea was the location of Rome’s unjust trade, including slave trade…. In the political economy of God’s New Jerusalem there will be no more sea-trade…. Unlike the unjust commerce of Babylon/Rome, God’s New Jerusalem is a place where life and its essentials are given as a free gift, “without money,” even to those who cannot pay for them.
We, too, find ourselves enmeshed in the unjust commerce of a destructive economy, a false ecology. Our Rome is alienation, body from body, and body from earth. We’ve been trained to dissociate ourselves from the pain, the generational trauma, inflicted on victim and perpetrator of this oppression alike. But our bodies know; the harm we do to creation, we carry in them. We feel it in our bones: we have become strangers in our own home.
I am full of hope today that we will learn to embody God’s gift of salvation, to follow God’s leading toward home. Even Coates’ terrible honesty gives me hope. I am hopeful because he, and others, are telling the full truth of where we have been and where we are now, and, as hard as it is to hear, we are listening. I am hopeful because I feel, in my bones, that the dreamers are awakening. We, as a people—white, black, brown, young, old—are dreaming a new dream, a dream of struggle and change. We know, in our bones, as the poet says, that the world as we know it must end. We must dream of the end of an ecology rooted in theft and violence, fear and dissociation. And we must dream of the birth of a new ecology rooted in gift, connection and freedom.
As the church, we are called to dream, and dream big, dream God’s dream. How will we join the struggle and dream the dream as First Church? How will we carry God’s salvation in our bodies? How will we come home to God’s new creation? At the Paris Climate Conference, Interfaith Power and Light presented an 11-foot-long scroll with the names of more than 4,500 congregations and individual households who took the Paris Pledge to cut their carbon emissions in half by 2030 and be carbon neutral by 2050. Cut our carbon emissions in half by 2030 and be carbon neutral by 2050: Friends, I believe this is our work as well. How shall we begin?
In C. S. Lewis’ famous children’s series, a wardrobe in a house in England hides a secret passageway into a land called Narnia. Narnia is another world, a world of strange wonders, where animals talk and magic works, and yet, Narnia is very much like our world, too. The children who travel to Narnia find that there, just as in England, there is greed and betrayal; there is mourning and crying, pain and death. The final book of the series, The Last Battle, is Lewis’ version of Revelation. Narnia seems to be on the verge of destruction when its inhabitants kill the great Lion Aslan. But Aslan is resurrected, and with him, Narnia. As the characters explore New Narnia, they notice that it is both like and unlike, Old Narnia. New Narnia has an intensity of color and beauty, a solidity that makes Old Narnia seem like a shadow. New Narnia, Lewis writes, is “deeper country.” It is “world within world,” where “no good thing is destroyed.” (p. 181) One of the characters exclaims, “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it ‘til now. The reason why we loved the Old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this…. Come further up, come further in!” (p. 196)
Our bodies know: the salvation of our God, we carry in them. We feel it in our bones: we are being called home, at last.