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Naturalized: White Settler Christianity and the Silence of Earth in Political Theology

The white US Evangelical denialists see something that many other political theologians do not: that taking seriously our ecological relations requires a kind of paganism.

Over the past decade I have puzzled over why white US Evangelicals (WUSE) turned from cautiously concerned about climate change to open hostility to the very idea of it. As some WUSE now malign as pagan anyone who cares for Earth and warn parents about the Green Dragon coming for their children’s souls, I have tried to understand the strategy of their political ecology. Why publicly wager your way of faith on the non-existence of a problem? Why, as anthropogenic environmental troubles become ever more a part of daily experience, align evangelical faith with material sources of the trouble? It seems irrational on first glance.

I have, however, come to think that they are on to something. Maybe WUSE came to see, correctly, the peril that climate carries to their form of religion. Perhaps they have so thoroughly interpreted their religious way of life within a national way of life powered by fossil energy that they cannot imagine their faith otherwise. I have publicly goaded them successfully by suggesting that historians of Christianity might designate their increasingly strange faction as petro-Manichaeism, since their devotion to fossil energy seems to lure them into contempt for material creation. But that category is not quite right, because it misses how their ethnonationalist appeals to providence function to let white settler extractivism remain unaccountable for its consequences.

If religious devotion to the political ecology of settler colonialism is some part of the reason for their climate denialism, the WUSE denialists see something that many other political theologians do not: that the challenge represented by climate change runs deeper than mainstream policy instruments. They may be right that it calls into question an entire way of life. They may even be right that taking seriously our ecological relations requires a kind of paganism. Maybe the WUSE denialists glimpse rightly the depth of change required for North Atlantic Christianity to make sense of creation, and so harden their hearts against it.

Pope Francis opens Laudato Si, his environment encyclical, by invoking creation in kinship language. It is sometimes awkward (“our sister, Mother Earth”), but the point is to depict Earth with a kind of voice that makes claims on us – “this sister now cries out to us…pleading that we take another course.” While some US conservatives recoiled from intimations of paganism at the Vatican, progressives generally seemed to treat the kinship language as a bit of rhetorical flourish in papal support for a global climate treaty. Across the spectrum of North American political theology, kinship with Earth seemed uncomfortable.

If it sounds weird to “hear the cry” of “sister earth”, that may be due to the kind of humanism typically espoused by North Atlantic Christianity: for 400 years – from the time of the empire of Atlantic slavery through the empire of fossil fuels – European Christians learned to imagine themselves as separate from nature and masters of it. Willie Jennings, in his important book, The Christian Imagination traces how modern ideas of race arose amidst colonial displacements of identity from land. At the same time that European Christians were learning to imagine humans as separate from nature and masters of it, they were also learning to imagine themselves as white. Jennings sees that the two shifts are linked. “With the emergence of whiteness,” he says, “identity was calibrated through possession of, not possession by, specific land.” As colonial settlers became white, their political processes of land seizure and property ownership reinforced racialized understandings of the human person that permitted structural violence toward both land and people. Whiteness insulated colonials from the claims that engagement with new peoples and new lands might otherwise have made on them, while at the same time constructing those fully human and those fully separate from nature and masters over it.

The reckoning of North American Christianity with its entanglements in white supremacy has only begun. Some of us in Charlottesville have found ourselves confronting public white nationalism, which has not been nearly as traumatizing as witnessing its normalization by white liberals, many of whom still refuse to see connections of white terrorism with the implicit white supremacy of everyday life. In Charlottesville, as across the United States, people of color have less access to food, education, and housing, while they are much more likely to be stopped by the police and to be jailed. Yet the story many white Christian liberals tell about what happened here is that a happy city was invaded by an alien ideology.

Meanwhile the extractivists do not hesitate to work their leverage on those racial entanglements. After a well-funded campaign intimidated WUSE leaders into backing away from climate concerns, a separate fossil-funded effort targeted black churches through a program that, among other things, organizes gospel music events that promote the benefits of fossil energy to low-income communities while associating renewable energy with white elitism.

But even insofar as North Atlantic Christianities have reckoned with their malformation in racism, their emancipatory projects of human equality have often meant equality in an alienating conception of humanity developed in the context of settler colonialism. As Jennings writes:

“The earth has been taken from us and given back to us changed, transformed into a mass of potential. Thus our lives, even if one day freed from racial calculations, suffer right now from a less helpful freedom, freedom from the ground, the dirt, landscapes, and animals, from life collaborative with the rhythms of God’s other creatures.”

In other words, even within its most emancipatory dreams, for most of North Atlantic Christianity, hearing the claim of other creatures sounds strange and romantic because theology—even progressive, anti-racist, post-colonial theologies—remains in thrall to a settler notion of humanity. The possibility of listening to creation requires a massive epistemic shift for political theology. It requires opening to listen to the intelligences of soil and landscape while at the same time expanding what reparative response to white supremacy entails. If Jennings is right, then reparations must not only dismantle the impediments to human equality (which already seem at the boundary of US political imagination); they must also repair the earth-silencing notion of human carried both by explicit white supremacy and most progressive visions of equality.

Environmentalist politics are often complicit in that earth-silencing notion of the human. Somewhat lost in the coverage of papal intervention in global climate negotiations was a message that runs directly against the grain of North Atlantic environmental solutions. Some ways of responding, says Francis, would intensify human domination over Earth and expand exploitation of vulnerable humans. Carbon markets, climate engineering, hardened coasts and electric cars – all that can leave untouched a deep, concealed violence. Taking responsibility for the problems we cause, says Francis, begins with renouncing control over reality in order to listen to its suffering. When the world suffers, she cries out to us, yet we have no ears to hear it because, “we have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is…reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.” Climate change is not the accidental side-effect of a decent way of life, but a manifestation of structural violence in our politics and a spiritual violence in our hearts.

The pope’s line of analysis suggests that if hearing the cry of sister earth sounds too strange for our ears, it may be because we share something with the denialists: we too are heirs to settler violence, we too are inhabiting ways of faith that are implicitly contemptuous of the lands in which we live, ways that, in ecological consequence, look like practical Manichaeism.

Remember Jennings saying that lost in European exit, African enslavement, and Indigenous genocide was a relation of land and personhood, which was displaced by a sense of identity “calibrated through possession of, not possession by, specific land.” Can North American political theologies, made from those dislocations, imagine being possessed by a specific land?

In her extraordinary Braiding Sweetgrass, the Potowatami scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer reflects on her struggle to teach the possibility of positive environmental interactions with students who are, for the most part, heirs to Christianity’s ecological narratives. She contrasts their cultural inheritance with her own by retelling a creation story told by Iroquois and Anishinaabe people. In it Skywoman falls from a hole in the skyworld, falling in darkness, clutching a bundle tightly in her hand. She is caught and held by geese above the waters below, but she remains helplessly dependent on the creatures of the water. So muskrat gives his life to bring mud from below, and turtle offers his back as a place on which to put the mud. Skywoman has in her hand fruits and seeds she had clutched from the tree of life when she fell. These she plants and tends, and land grows, on what we now call Turtle Island.

Most of her students, she observes, were raised in a story with a different woman in a different garden and a very different outcome. “One woman is an ancestral gardener, a cocreator of the good green world that would be the home of her descendants. The other was an exile, just passing through an alien world on a rough road to her real home in heaven.” Even if you, like me, think that there are alternate interpretations of the Genesis story, you might concede to Kimmerer that lived impact seems to favor her assessment.

Kimmerer recalls that some Native elders say that the problem with the new people, the ones who came after Columbus, is that they still have a foot on the boat. “For the sake of the peoples and the land,” she writes, “the urgent work of the Second Man may be to set aside the ways of the colonist and become indigenous to place.” Becoming native to Turtle Island – that idea recalls the writings of Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, Barry Lopez, bell hooks, each in some way working toward the possibility of non-native people coming to belong to the lands in which they now live.

Yet Kimmerer, along with other Indigenous writers, bristles against the possibility she has just raised. It is too heartbreaking to imagine how the world could have been different had the new peoples arrived differently. Passenger pigeons would still darken the sky; there would be old growth forests, salmon, cranes, cougars. She would be speaking Potawatomi. “Against the backdrop of that history, an invitation to settler society to become indigenous to place feels like a free ticket to a housebreaking party…Indigenous is a birth-right word. No amount of time of caring changes history or substitutes for soul-deep fusion with the land.”

But maybe the descendants of settlers and all the peoples who fled or were forced to this land can at least learn reciprocity. Kimmerer, the botanist, turns to think with a non-native plant, a form of plantain known to her people as White Man’s Footsteps for the way it followed settler roads and clearings. It is a plant – unlike many other invasives – that lives as a good neighbor. It fit itself into the ecology and proved itself useful. “Plantain is not indigenous, but ‘naturalized.’…Maybe the task assigned to Second Man is to unlearn the model of kudzu and follow the teachings of White Man’s Footsep, to strive to become naturalized to place.” She is inviting those of us not native to Turtle Island to become naturalized, to live as if we belong to the watersheds in which we now live, as if the world around us is alive and can teach us, even possess our spirits. Maybe the white US evangelicals can become watershed evangelicals.

Is that not pagan? Theology instructed by indigenous peoples and possessed by the land is exactly the sort of thing from which the settler Christian mind has been taught to recoil as demonic. The white North American theologian Mark Wallace has suggested that just as Christian theology has had in the 20th century to reckon with its inherited anti-Semitism by recovering Judaism as an original source from which Christianity grew, so now it is time to reckon with its inherited anti-paganism by recovering the local earth-centered spiritualities as another source from which Christianity grew, often assimilating them as it converted those they called pagans. Recovering Christianity, says Wallace, requires recovering the animist possibilities of belief in God immanent in all things.

The Native American theologian Tink Tinker argues that a way to start on that repair is to recover the doctrine of creation, which theology can do by learning from Native American peoples how to live in particular places with all our relatives, learning anew, as if children, how everything is alive and has something to say to us. Christianity was led to complicity in indigenous genocide, thinks Tinker, when it became an abstract narrative of redemption indifferent to the particular lands in which it lived – and thereby incapable of recognizing Native sovereignty. Indifference to earth is a theological possibility opened by white supremacy, present still in landless theologies.

“Being naturalized to place,” writes Kimmerer, “means to live as if this is the land that feeds you, as if these are the streams from which you drink, that build your body and feed your spirit.” Yet that seems almost unimaginable inside political theology as it is usually written in the North Atlantic world. Why? The reasons are not utterly removed, I think, from those underlying WUSE denialism.

This article adapted from a talk given at Yale Divinity School, April 2018.

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Naturalized: White Settler Christianity and the Silence of Earth in Political Theology

The white US Evangelical denialists see something that many other political theologians do not: that taking seriously our ecological relations requires a kind of paganism.

3 thoughts on “Naturalized: White Settler Christianity and the Silence of Earth in Political Theology

  1. Some of us are living this new theology. The Land speaks and we are listening, learning, lamenting, loving.

  2. Excellent article, much appreciated. Integrating the words of Pope Francis is interesting for several reasons, but most notably because, to my knowledge, the WUSE would tend to see Roman Catholicism and the Pope as deeply flawed and even Satanically inspired.

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