By Rich Preheim for AMBS
ELKHART, Indiana (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) — Participants in Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary’s third Rooted and Grounded Conference on Land and Christian Discipleship, April 20–22, considered together how humans can faithfully relate to the land, to each other and to God.
According to Janeen Bertsche Johnson, AMBS campus pastor and conference coordinator, the three-day event brought together 120 people from a variety of backgrounds, vocations and locations across North America.
“In the face of so many threats to creation’s well-being, this conference offered both a prophetic voice and concrete ideas for how Christians can participate in God’s work of renewing creation,” Johnson said, noting that one of the workshops was led by two women from Ontario and Virginia who knew each other through an online network of people leading outdoor worship experiences, but had never met in person.
The prior two Rooted and Grounded conferences were held in September 2014 and October 2015, also at AMBS.
Engaging creation and salvation
As part of the event’s first worship session on April 20, Stanley Saunders, Ph.D., one of three keynote speakers, presented on “A Dwelling Place for God: Earth, Ecology and Eschatology in the Sermon on the Mount.” Saunders, associate professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, deconstructed common perceptions of creation and salvation.
“Most Christians today seem to believe that the Christian story is about how we get out of here someday,” he said. “We all want to leave this world and these bodies behind and go off and be with God.”
As a result, many Christians have viewed creation only as a temporary stop on a cosmic journey, separate from a person’s relationship with God and its eternal consequences. But Saunders said the concept of heaven as “being some separate place off in some other dimension or way up in the sky” isn’t supported by Scripture.
“If we thought about heaven instead as the present and more real dimension of this world, mostly characterized by the presence of God, we would probably be closer to the biblical understanding of heaven,” he said.
While the New Testament makes scant explicit use of the word “creation,” Saunders said, it’s found in other ways. For example, Matthew’s Gospel uses “heaven and earth” 20 times, an all-inclusive phrase that depicts all of creation. “Temple” is another pervasive synonym, symbolizing the Creation.
Through this lens, Saunders said, the relationship between God and humans includes creation, noting that it was a view prevalent in the church until about the time of the Reformation.
“The arc of the biblical narrative, from Genesis to Revelation, is focused on the restoration of heaven and earth, including but not limited to humankind,” he said.
Confronting destructive systems
Sarah Augustine of White Swan, Washington, was the keynote speaker on the second evening of the conference. In her presentation, “Peoples of the Land Rise Up: The Struggle for the Land is the Struggle for Life,” Augustine argued for a more radical discipleship to counter the forces that foul the environment and endanger people. She is the executive director of the Dispute Resolution Center of Yakima (Washington).
“Our instructions are clear,” she said, citing Old Testament prophets such as Amos, Hosea and Isaiah. “We must choose the systems of life over the systems of death and defend the oppressed.”
But currently, she added, “we’re invested in a machine that destroys creation and thus life.”
Augustine highlighted Indigenous peoples, who know how to live in harmony with the natural world but are the ones most harmed by others who consider creation something to be used and exploited.
Augustine, an Indigenous Pueblo (Tewa) Woman and member of Seattle Mennonite Church, is active in the Mennonite-affiliated Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition. She was the lead writer on the statement on the doctrine adopted by the World Council of Churches in 2012.
Augustine described three core components of the Doctrine of Discovery, which the coalition describes as “a philosophical and legal framework dating to the 15th century that gave Christian governments moral and legal rights to invade and seize Indigenous lands and dominate Indigenous peoples.” First, it claimed that the church had a covenant with God that empowered members to have dominion over the world. Second, it claimed that God had also empowered secular state or national authorities. Third, it viewed the Great Commission as an encouragement for Christians to go out and proclaim to the world their special status as a covenanted people, thus expanding the doctrine.
Noting that the Doctrine of Discovery is the foundation for the notion of manifest destiny, Augustine said it pervades not only legal structures but also international development and trade agreements. In addition, the doctrine allows fairness to be defined by the majority, which disenfranchises native peoples.
She described the doctrine’s effects in Suriname, South America, where western business initiatives, particularly gold mining, have displaced many of the country’s Indigenous population and polluted their water and food sources.
“They don’t have rights because of the Doctrine of Discovery,” said Augustine, who is also co-director of the Suriname Indigenous Health Fund.
Todd Wynward of Taos, New Mexico, spoke on the third day of the event on “Come to the Waters: What Settlers Like Me Learn from Standing Rock.” He noted that global environmental degradation and death seem rampant — from mining in Congo to loosening waterway protections in North America. Yet he admitted he has “a strange and perverse hope.”
“People of faith and Christianity who sometimes stay inside of buildings are realizing there’s a whole lot more going on,” he said. “We’re a little bit late for the party. But once we organize ourselves, Christians have a level of heart and engagement that if we know our God is telling us to do something, a lot of us will change our lives to do it.”
In calling for change, Wynward — who serves as minister for watershed discipleship for Mountain States Mennonite Conference of Mennonite Church USA — noted his own “breaking away” from the dominant culture, which included living for several years with his wife and son in a yurt without running water. He also established a wilderness-based public charter school in New Mexico and co-founded the Taos Initiative for Life Together.
“Christianity is a subversive, transformational empire-resisting, on-the-edges religion that should be about getting in trouble,” said Wynward, highlighting examples of Indigenous people who have risked their lives to protect their sacred lands and waters. “We should be risky. We should be risking insecurity.”
The conference also included worship and more than 40 workshops, paper presentations and other activities. Among the topics were the rural church, climate change, food security, local environmental projects and theological studies. Immersion experiences included visits to Goshen (Indiana) College’s Merry Lea Environmental Center in Wolf Lake, Indiana; a wastewater treatment plant; local farms; and sites from the Trail of Death, the forced removal of 859 Potawatomi Indians from their northern Indiana homelands in 1838. An exhibit of life-size portraits by photographer Sharon Hoogstraten of modern-day Potawatomi Indians in their traditional regalia offered an introduction to descendants of those who once lived in the region.
The conference also featured the dedication of AMBS’s new array of solar panels, which were installed in early April. The 180 330-watt panels, located on the south side of the campus, are expected to provide a quarter of the power needed in Waltner Hall, the seminary’s main office and classroom building.
Dr. Stanley Saunders of Decatur, Georgia, gives the keynote address, “Earth, Ecology and Eschatology in the Sermon on the Mount,” during the Rooted and Grounded Conference at AMBS in Elkhart on April 20. (Credit: J. Tyler Klassen)
Sarah Augustine of White Swan, Washington, addresses the land struggles of Indigenous peoples during her keynote address April 21 at the third Rooted and Grounded Conference at AMBS in Elkhart. (Credit: Rachel Hiebert)
Todd Wynward of Taos, New Mexico, a keynote speaker at the third Rooted and Grounded Conference at AMBS in Elkhart, speaks about “Come to the Waters: What Settlers Like Me Learn from Standing Rock” on April 22. (Credit: Rachel Hiebert)
At the end of AMBS’s Rooted and Grounded Conference, participants in a workshop on lament and reconciliation planted a tree as a symbol of Christians’ covenant to care for the land. (Credit: Rachel Hiebert)
Missy Kauffman Schrock, director of development (left) and Janeen Bertsche Johnson, AMBS campus pastor and Rooted and Grounded conference planner, lead the dedication of the seminary’s new solar panels during the Rooted and Grounded Conference at AMBS in Elkhart on April 20. (Credit: J. Tyler Klassen)