By Annette Brill Bergstresser
ELKHART, Indiana (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) — As the floodwaters of Hurricane Florence crested in South Carolina, three keynote speakers at the fourth Rooted and Grounded Conference on Land and Christian Discipleship at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Indiana, told participants that shifts in dominant Western belief systems and priorities would be needed for people to live in right relationship with God’s creation in the present climate crisis.
More than 100 people participated in the Sept. 27–29 event, coming from as far as Indonesia, Zimbabwe, Nepal and El Salvador in addition to Canada and the United States. Co-sponsors of the event included AMBS, the Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions (CSCS) and the Institute for Ecological Regeneration of Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center of Goshen (Indiana) College.
According to Janeen Bertsche Johnson, the conference coordinator and AMBS’s campus pastor, this year’s event also attracted more young adults than in the past, including CSCS interns and students from undergraduate institutions in Winnipeg, Virginia, California, Indiana, Kansas and Illinois.
“The highlight of this conference for me was a roundtable discussion with alternative farmers,” said Lizzie Schrag of Galva, Kansas, a student at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg. “I spent the rest of the conference thinking about how to come up with better practices. It’s inspired me to think about organizing farmers and transforming the food system to fight unjust systems.”
“Wisdom from the Rooted and Grounded Conference is changing people’s lives in both simple and profound ways,” reflected Ben Brabson, Ph.D., a retired professor of physics and climate science at Indiana University Bloomington. He told fellow participants at the closing session, “Your understanding of the impact of climate change is not only accurate but goes far beyond what many are thinking. The problem is no longer one of collecting information; the real effort now is in communication and in reaching out to the larger community. As Mennonites, you have moral agency, the ability to act as disciples of Jesus. That is something I ask you to teach us.”
Challenging existing value systems
During the first worship session on Sept. 27, Karenna Gore, J.D., M.A., founder and director of the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, presented on “A Moral Framework for Concern about Climate and Related Environmental Issues.”
She began by quoting Henrik Grape, officer on sustainable development for the Church of Sweden, who said, “Any discussion about climate change should have three empty chairs in the room: one for future generations, one for all nonhuman life and one for the poor and marginalized in our world today.”
“A moral framework for climate change must include a serious shift in value systems; it’s only then that we can truly be accountable to those three empty chairs,” she said.
Gore focused on what she sees as two of the root causes of climate change. First is the belief that humans are separate from and superior to the rest of the natural world, which she said “is so pervasive and secularized that often we don’t even detect it … as though nature were a kind of backdrop.”
“Part of the work we need to do is to unravel and examine what assumptions come from a distortion of the dominant religious tradition in this country, which has been the dominant country in the world’s economy,” she said.
She observed that Western civilization set the stage for the “science/religion” divide, which she believes stands in the way of meaningful widespread public conversation on climate change.
She referenced Luke 12:56-57 — where Jesus says, “You hypocrites, you know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky. Why don’t you know how to interpret the present time? And why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right?” — and pointed to the signs: stronger and more frequent storms and floods; heat waves; droughts; wildfires; melting Arctic ice; rising sea levels; climate refugees; and extinctions that also threaten global food supplies.
“Perhaps some of us are afraid to judge what is right because we fear the specter of our own hypocrisy … and so by default we choose an even greater hypocrisy: silent complicity in the absurd assumption that nothing is wrong,” she said. “But the more we try to insulate ourselves from the cycles of nature and deny our place within the web of life, the deeper our hypocrisy will be. The more we blame others and even ourselves rather than act together for positive change, the longer we will be stuck here. Instead we must step back, look up at the sky, touch the ground, and judge for ourselves what is right.”
The second cause Gore named is the economic growth paradigm that values short-term monetary gain, no matter how inequitable or destructive, and the associated “externalization of costs.” Those who bear these externalized costs — such as pollution, the breakdown of communities and the depletion of natural resources — are those sitting in Grape’s three empty chairs, and they are not seriously considered when decisions affecting them are made. Gore added that the focus on Gross Domestic Product comes at a “cost to our integrity.”
She noted that the Poor People’s Campaign has added ecological devastation to the list of interlocking evils named by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that “need to be conquered with a radical revolution of values”: militarism, racism and poverty.
Gore cited warnings against greed, quoting Matthew 6:19-21 and a passage from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship about the accumulation of material wealth creating a barrier between oneself and God.
“There is a good way to relate to the treasures on earth — to share, to care for, to protect, to be in communion with,” she said, and named examples of people actively and nonviolently resisting corporations whose actions are causing ecological devastation across the world. “The work we do now is related across time and space in many ways we may never fully understand. … May we remember what limitless potential there is for change when we allow ourselves to be humble and open.”
“We should not underestimate the importance of recognizing spaces for Christian witness in this time, because the aggregate effect of all of these projects all over the world in which corporate rights are held over community rights is the destruction of the livability of the planet,” she concluded. “In any one case, it’s only that one project, but the pattern is so overwhelming now, and what needs to happen is that shift in perception.”
Honoring the interrelatedness of all creation
On Sept. 28, Rev. Valerie Bridgeman, Ph.D., dean and vice president for academic affairs and associate professor of homiletics and Hebrew Bible at Methodist Theological School in (Delaware) Ohio, presented a keynote address titled, “If Only: Learning from Creation.” She is also an author, poet, and founder and president of WomanPreach!, Inc.
Bridgeman, who is writing a commentary on the book of Job, chose to focus on Job 38, in which God responds to Job’s prayers and questions with a series of questions — all related to aspects of creation, from the recesses of the deep to the constellations in the sky.
She shared stories as a way of reflecting on these questions herself — of sitting in a tree and being present with God’s creation as a young child; later, of being stalled in a train between the Pacific Ocean and the Sierra Mountains with her two children and being moved to song by the awe-inspiring spectacle of a star-filled sky over the sea; of learning about medicinal plants from Ma (Makota) Valdiña Pinto, a Brazilian historian, herbalist and healer, while studying the varieties of Black religious experiences.
She named some of her learnings — about respecting all creation; understanding that not all territory is human ground; finding humility in the presence of creation; and recognizing that God has put gifts into the earth to heal — and concluded each story with the refrain, “Let the truth settle on you. If only we could comprehend divinity and mystery, if only we could see it in creation.”
Bridgeman’s day with Ma Valdiña evoked memories of her mother’s mother, also a traditional healer, who Bridgeman described as being “in synergy with the earth and with all creation.”
“If only we would remember that we are companions on the earth; we are not merely caretakers,” she reflected. “The earth is also our caretaker, if we would but pay attention. There are roots and leaves that do not need to pass through pharmacology to heal us.”
Bridgeman continued to examine society’s perceptions of the earth, raising the influence of perspectives on gender as she shared, “A friend says to me, ‘Perhaps we don’t treat the earth well because we call her Mother. … How can we speak of care for the earth when we cannot get care, cannot be safe as women? No wonder Mother Earth is not safe; we think She is a she, so we don’t protect her. We rape her of resources and destroy her breath by the emission of gases into the atmosphere.’”
“The earth is under attack by a virulent conqueror mentality,” Bridgeman stated. “We know nothing of appreciating creation for creation’s sake. It’s why all of creation groans. And even when creation has things in it to protect it from us and from other creatures, we create poisons to kill its protection. And we wipe our mouths like we’ve had a good meal and self-congratulate our dominion.”
“The earth ought to be treated well not simply because we’re going to die because we don’t treat it well; it should be treated well because it’s God’s creation,” she asserted.
She noted that God doesn’t answer Job’s questions about his suffering directly but instead points to what God has done, enlarging Job’s perspective to include all of creation.
To work toward living in right relationship with the land, she encouraged her listeners “to start with the stories of the land and sea and sky and how much we must revel in it rather than master it — and I do mean that gendered word.” She referenced Rev. Lynice Pinkard’s call to “start an internal movement where we/you/I give up our addictions to stuff, to access, to believing we have a right to whatever we want” and to consider the impacts their decisions have on creation. She also urged participants to encounter Scripture as a conversation partner for all creation, and to exercise hope.
She concluded by quoting blues musician and Memphis pastor John Kilzer, who once said, “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up way too much space.”
Deconstructing a Western worldview
On Sept. 29, Rev. Randy Woodley, Ph.D., an author, activist/scholar, wisdom keeper and American Baptist minister, gave a keynote address on “Resurrecting Ancient Wisdom and Worldview,” referencing John 1:1-5, 10-14. Woodley, who is a legal descendant of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma, serves as distinguished professor of faith and culture and director of intercultural and Indigenous studies at George Fox University/Portland (Oregon) Seminary.
Woodley asked his listeners to stand and face the four directions with him as he sang in an Indigenous language, “Creator, when you look down on me today, have pity on me and remember I’m just a human being.”
He wove traditional Indigenous stories and humor throughout his message as he invited participants to consider flaws associated with a Western worldview as well as the theological possibilities that an Indigenous worldview offers.
Noting that “the winners always write history,” Woodley cited John Mohawk, who wrote that distorted and even dishonest renderings of the past are found in many modern accounts of ancient peoples and contemporary “primitive” peoples, serving to reinforce the sense of difference between modern people and those who have come before and to distance them from unflattering legacies from the past.
He spoke of the effects of colonization, which has its roots in “theology that serves to raise the colonizers above those to be colonized” (Robert Francis).
“When a people develop the idea that they have exclusive possession of communication from God and exclusive control of the means of salvation, all the peoples of the earth stand in peril,” he said, still quoting Francis. “So an alternative to colonial religion requires a different foundation.”
Woodley spoke of an aha moment in the early 2000s when he and Edith, his wife, were leading a pilgrimage along the Cherokee Trail of Tears and reading Walter Brueggemann’s writings on shalom. He realized that the Cherokee had a similar concept — eloheh — and began researching different tribes’ names for shalom, eventually writing his doctoral dissertation on the subject: “The Harmony Way: Integrating Indigenous Values Within Native North American Theology and Mission.”
“I called it ‘the harmony way’ because it encompassed everything,” Woodley said, and named 10 core values he found were shared widely among 45 Native American tribes across the U.S. and Canada: 1. Tangible spirituality; 2. Life is governed by harmony; 3. Community is essential; 4. Humor is sacred and necessary; 5. Cooperative communality (the dignity of the process of consensus); 6. Morality; 7. Present and past time orientation (rather than the present and future orientation more typical of European-Americans); 8. An open work ethic; 9. Hospitality and generosity; and 10. A natural connectedness to all creation.
Noting that belief in “the Indigenous problem” is still present in the Western psyche, with Natives being blamed for not accepting the terms of their colonization, he identified several characteristics of the Western worldview that he sees as problematic as well as un-Christian:
- dualism, or investing in the spiritual or abstract realm to a higher degree than the physical realm
- extrinsic categories rather than holistic thinking
- the idea that salvation is only for people’s souls, not about the whole earth that Jesus created
- a focus on hierarchy that results in dehumanization of particular people groups and nature
- utopianism, or living for the future or an idealized past
- individualism and the loss of the corporate nature of humanity and of Scripture
- competitiveness over cooperation
- majority rule over consensus
- beliefs and systems that keep Whites in control of governance, knowledge, wealth and power
He said he sees dualism as creating a disembodied theology and resulting in binary thinking: “It’s the belief that God is at work in the church more than God is at work in the world. It’s either right or wrong, legal or illegal, heaven or hell, sin or holiness, success or failure, civilized or primitive, saved or lost.”
“It makes it difficult for Western thinkers to hold two seemingly incompatible things in tension without having to find resolution,” he continued. “This is part of a false assumption that everything can be understood and every problem can be solved. But we might be at the place where we can’t solve it anymore — the political problem, the race problem, the earth problem.”
For Woodley, the way to counter the misunderstandings that he believes Christians have developed of Jesus and his shalom kingdom, of their duty to the marginalized and of the very nature of God is both structural and relational. It involves Western thinkers deconstructing their worldview; understanding Jesus as the cosmic creator and God as restoring harmony and shalom to all creation, not just humans; viewing the stories of Jesus through a local, indigenous, place-based theological lens; allowing themselves to be vulnerable and to learn from the cultural “other”; and understanding their equality and interconnectedness with creation. It also involves education of the dominant culture.
“A more indigenous viewpoint has direct implications for how we live our lives, how we understand our salvation and healing, and how we go about doing mission,” he concluded. “It’s going to take all of us.”
The conference also included worship and more than 30 workshops and paper presentations on topics such as climate science and faith perspectives, climate change in the Global South, biblical storytelling on creation, pastoral responses to denial and despair, Christlike eating, organic farming, and creation care resources, among others.
In a forum address at the beginning of the conference, University of Virginia doctoral student Luke Beck Kreider gave an overview of Anabaptist approaches to creation care, highlighting the contributions and limitations of agrarian virtue ethics, watershed discipleship and eco-pacifism and suggesting ways that each could be strengthened by engagement with environmental racism concerns.
Friday afternoon immersion experiences offered participants the chance to engage Merry Lea Environmental Center in Wolf Lake, Indiana; Camp Friedenswald in Cassopolis, Michigan; a local family homestead; The Hermitage Community in Three Rivers, Michigan; Potawatomi historical sites, river monitoring and a farm in Benton, Indiana; or the AMBS prayer labyrinth.
The prior three Rooted and Grounded conferences were held in September 2014, October 2015 and April 2017, also at AMBS. In addition to Johnson, this year’s planning committee included AMBS faculty members Malinda E. Berry and Andy Brubacher Kaethler; AMBS students Benjamin Isaak-Krauss, Scott Litwiller and Brian O’Leary; Luke Gascho, executive director of Merry Lea; and Doug Graber Neufeld, CSCS director.
Recordings of the keynote speakers are available at soundcloud.com/followambs.
Karenna Gore, J.D., M.A., of Union Theological Seminary in New York City, gives a keynote address titled “A Moral Framework for Concern about Climate and Related Environmental Issues” on Sept. 27 during the Rooted and Grounded Conference at AMBS in Elkhart, Indiana. (Credit: Perdian Tumanan)
Rev. Valerie Bridgeman, Ph.D., dean and vice president for academic affairs and associate professor of homiletics and Hebrew Bible at Methodist Theological School in (Delaware) Ohio, presents a keynote address titled “If Only: Learning from Creation” on Sept. 28 during the Rooted and Grounded Conference at AMBS in Elkhart, Indiana. (Credit: Perdian Tumanan)
Rev. Randy Woodley, Ph.D., distinguished professor of faith and culture and director of intercultural and Indigenous studies at George Fox University/Portland (Oregon) Seminary, gives a keynote address on “Resurrecting Ancient Wisdom and Worldview” on Sept. 29 during AMBS’s Rooted and Grounded Conference. (Credit: Perdian Tumanan)
Beverly Lapp, AMBS vice president and academic dean, leads singing during worship at the fourth Rooted and Grounded Conference, Sept. 27–29 at AMBS. (Credit: Perdian Tumanan)