“Throw it over the hill,” was the phrase that started my abuse of the environment years ago. It was not intentional. My childhood home sits just across the street, actually a dirt road when I was a child, from a hillside the descends to a large field. And that hill became our personal dumping ground.
Some of what we tossed over the hill was not harmful. We composted before we knew what that was, collecting fruit skins, food scraps, and the like. In the summer the nats would fly around the collected food on the kitchen counter. “Throw this over the hill,” my mother would say. I would pick up the container and catch a whiff of rotten food mash, trying to hold my breath for the duration of the trip across the road. And I would toss out the slimy collection of our weekly menu, believing the rancid feast would nourish the weeds or the rats or some living thing.
The habit, though, spilled over into other practices, some of which I find embarrassing to admit. Like the day I taught myself to change the oil in my first car, a 1977 Chevy Nova. I loosened the drain plug and watched it fall into the plastic container as the black, thick dirty oil poured out so fast that my hands were covered in the few seconds it took to rescue the plug. At the age of 16 I was so proud of my accomplishment. No one mentored me. I figured it out myself, even changing the oil filter. American individual self-reliance at work. But what to do with the old oil, the black and dirty sludge, the consistency of maple syrup but with the filth of a dirty storage shed? Of course. The hill. “Throw it over the hill.” And that’s just what I did. I dumped my five quarts of oil down the hill. And that was that. Gone. Like old potato skins and overripe bananas. The earth would consume it, so my young mind thought – or pretended to think.
Fortunately, I soon began receiving a weekly paycheck from my part-time grocery store job and decided that it was a good investment to have someone else change my oil. But after many years have passed I still carry guilt over the ease with which I dumped used motor oil “over the hill” without regard to the ecological consequences.
The Church believes the earth, indeed all of creation, is divine gift. We talk of creation not from a perspective of scientific inquiry but from a theological belief that God is the source of all creation. There are actually two creation accounts in the book of Genesis, one that describes a 7-day unfolding of God’s handiwork, the other an unspecified time. Both highlight the creation of humankind as particularly significant, one linking humans with God’s own image while the other speaks of God’s very breath vivifying the bodies of humankind.
These human beings are charged with stewarding the earth, something we have done well at times and poorly at times. “Before crossing a river, we pause and thank the river for letting us cross,” said the Native American visitor as he shared the importance of creation in his own spirituality while visiting us. In contrast, I remember reading Donald Worster’s book, The Dust Bowl, as an undergraduate and becoming aware, for the first time, of the systemic practices that harm the environment. We can, it turns out, collectively harm the environment by throwing the trash of industrialization “over the hill.” We can abuse the soil to such a degree that in its injured state it becomes unable to resist the stressors of wind and rain. Even the earth needs to rest, it seems, particularly the soil.
Pope Francis, in his widely publicized encyclical Laudato Si, calls all of us, Christians included, to a new awareness of the creation and our role as stewards of this divine gift. He suggests a new conversion to embrace our God-given vocation of caring for the environment:
It must be said that some committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism, tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment. Others are passive; they choose not to change their habits and thus become inconsistent. So what they all need is an “ecological conversion”, whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience [Catholic Church, and Francis. Praise Be to You = Laudato Si’ : on Care for Our Common Home, (217). 2015].
My own branch of Christianity, The United Methodist Church, also calls the people who follow in the ways of Jesus to take seriously the responsibility of ecological stewardship. Our Social Principles state:
All creation is the Lord’s, and we are responsible for the ways in which we use and abuse it. Water, air, soil, minerals, energy resources, plants, animal life, and space are to be valued and conserved because they are God’s creation and not solely because they are useful to human beings. God has granted us stewardship of creation. We should meet these stewardship duties through acts of loving care and respect. Economic, political, social, and technological developments have increased our human numbers, and lengthened and enriched our lives. However, these developments have led to regional defoliation, dramatic extinction of species, massive human suffering, overpopulation, and misuse and overconsumption of natural and nonrenewable resources, particularly by industrialized societies. This continued course of action jeopardizes the natural heritage that God has entrusted to all generations. Therefore, let us recognize the responsibility of the church and its members to place a high priority on changes in economic, political, social, and technological lifestyles to support a more ecologically equitable and sustainable world leading to a higher quality of life for all of God’s creation [“The Social Principles of The United Methodist Church,” http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/The-natural-world, accessed 2 June 2017.].
I must admit that my own awareness of ecological concerns is limited and, despite knowing that advocacy work on behalf of one cause is always linked to other causes, I have not been especially vocal about the importance of caring for our planet. I do know that when I travel to El Salvador in a few weeks with my congregation’s senior youth, I will listen more carefully to the people in the rural community where we will stay as they share the impact of climate change on their lives. They are people of the land, dependent upon sugar cane, corn, and other crops for their own families to survive. And the ever-warming planet is impacting their work.
I will learn and I will listen. And I will continue to consider how I might increase my own stewardship of our beautiful planet, even the little hills full of brush, just across the street.