Up, out, downby Lisa Schirch
Relationship is the central theme of all religions. Most Christian churches foster a relationship up with God and may even scowl at thinking about peacebuilding or creation care as theological tasks. Real reconciliation with God happens in the shape of the cross: building relationships up, out and down to reconcile with God, with the rest of humanity and with the whole of creation.
On my Mennonite Central Committee term working with First Nations peoples in Canada in the early 1990s, Native elders taught me two things about Native religion. First, the most sacred principle of life, equivalent to the Lord's Prayer in Christianity, is to always remember, in every moment, "all my relations." Second, elders teach that every moment is a spiritual moment; a religious re-membering of “all my relations” doesn’t just happen on Sunday morning.
The Native view of relationships is more expansive than just focusing on human connection to the Creator. A Native prayer remembers every element of Creation; beckoning awareness and connection to the song of the birds, the strength of the wind, the smell of the hemlock. This may sound precious and poetic, but as I grow older, this expansive understanding of religion as connection to all creation is profound.
The word religion means to connect, just like its latin root "lig," which is also the root of ligament, those strands of flesh that hold together muscle and bone. Holy, likewise, refers to the word whole; being related means being together. The word violence, on the other hand, means to disconnect, to use force and power to divide, punish and push away. Sin, likewise, has connotations of breaking or violating relationships.
Barbara Ehrenreich's book Blood Rites lays out the history of religion and violence. She argues that all religions originated as a counterforce to violence. As human beings first formed communities to protect themselves against lions, tigers or other large predators in the first days of humanity, and then against other communities with weapons who attacked them, they started the religious practice of binding themselves together. These early religious practices of building community, documented in our own Bible, formed the foundation of today’s major world religions.
Peacebuilding is a religious task of reconciling people who are divided by conflict. It seeks to make whole (or holy) what humans have divided. Likewise the concept of creation care or environmental stewardship now appears to be reminding us of our connection to creation as a whole. As a planet, we live in our fragile corner of the universe. We are but a spot in the whole scheme of things. Here on this tiny planet, religions of all brands long for holiness, wholeness, relationship.
Americans have heard a lot about the environmental impacts of climate change. We already see the droughts, floods, intense storms and pictures on TV of melting glaciers and icecaps. Few media outlets are discussing the impact that climate change will have on people's relationships with each other.
U.S. military experts identify climate change as a "threat multiplier" for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world, stating on record that climate change will expand the war on terror. As sea levels rise, dislocating millions of people and their livelihoods, as droughts and floods destroy farmland and homes and as governments collapse as climate-induced chaos sets in, there is a real fear that violent conflict will increase. While rich countries have historically been the chief consumers and polluters driving climate change, poor countries will suffer most from sea-level rise, increased droughts, floods and extreme weather. Some African and Latin American leaders already call climate change "an act of aggression by the rich against the poor."
The line between creation care and peacebuilding has disappeared. To work for peace means to work for a sustainable life. I remind myself of that as I bike to work at Eastern Mennonite University's Center for Justice and Peacebuilding in Harrisonburg, Va. And I'm reminded at home as we take out loans to install geothermal heating and a solar hot water heater. And I’m reminded as I seek ways of using only a proportionate share of the world’s resources by setting off the carbon I produce on my weekly drives to Washington to promote peacebuilding there.
American Mennonites live in a divided world. We are divided from other peoples by our patterns of consumption supported by an active military presence around the world, paid for by our taxes. Mennonite pacifism seems like a remote theory calling out from a few ivory towers but disconnected from most of our everyday lives. Mennonite colleges and churches seem to spend more of their time trying to keep up with a consumer-driven culture than finding more authentic ways of building relationships with our neighbors near and far or in truly investing in a sustainable lifestyle in which each of us only uses our fair share and proportion of the world’s food, energy and resources. We still spend more of our time judging other people and building walls to keep people out by naming their behaviors as sin than we do at building relationships with people we disagree with here in our own communities.
I grew up hearing my Mennonite community teach me to "live simply so that others may simply live." Simple living is the way toward a sustainable future. It is a holy way of reminding ourselves in every sip of coffee, every bite of banana, every sweater and pair of jeans and drive to the grocery store that we are connected to people and creatures all over this planet. Our consumption is part of life. But like indigenous peoples who say a prayer when they kill a deer or eat a meal for "all my relations" who have sacrificed something so that they can live, I wonder what it would be like for Mennonites to be so mindful of our relationships.
Every major religion has teachings on how to reconcile communities to God, each other and how to live sustainably with the rest of creation. I long for the Mennonite community to take more leadership in paving a way forward as our Anabaptist ancestors did. I'd like for Mennonites to redecorate our theology with a symbol of the cross that points us in three directions for reconciling and building relationships up with God, out with our neighbors and down with the Earth.
Let us seek not only on Sunday morning to relate to God but see each moment as an opportunity for mindfulness of our relationships up, out and down.
Lisa Schirch is professor of peacebuilding at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Va.
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